Recently, the technology giant Apple was ordered by a court judge to comply with the FBI’s demand that the company produce a back door that can be used to hack the iPhone. Apple has hotly contested this ruling, thereby creating a legal and moral face-off between itself and the American government. The purpose of the present sample essay provided by Ultius is to discuss this emerging issue in greater depth. The essay will have five main parts.
- The first part will provide background context for the case at hand.
- The second part will describe the legal foundations of the FBI’s demand.
- The third part will consider Apple’s response to that demand.
- The fourth part will reflect on the American people’s reaction to the issue thus far.
- The fifth part will reach a considered conclusion in favor of Apple and against the FBI regarding the issue at hand here.
FBI vs Apple
On the 2nd of December 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 injured by a mass shooting in the city of San Bernardino, California. The FBI has been treating this incident as a terrorist attack. As Koren has indicated:
“The FBI is investigating the deadly shooting in San Bernardino, California, as an act of terrorism that may have been inspired by militant Islamic groups . . . The shooters—a husband and wife—had turned part of their home into a bomb-making factory, and the woman had apparently pledged allegiance to the Islamic state” (paragraphs 1-2).
Terrorism, of course, has become a very emotional issue for Americans in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centers; and few would deny that all efforts should be taken to keep Americans safe from this threat.
Searching the home of the terrorists, law enforcement found an iPhone belonging to the terrorists. It is believed that this phone may contain information that could shed light on the motives and of the people who committed the San Bernardino attacks, and potentially provide information that could help prevent similar attacks from occurring in the future. The problem, however, is that the phone runs the iOS9 operating system, which features especially strong data encryption.
The upshot is that the FBI cannot hack the phone they retrieved in order to obtain the data that it contains. Among other things, this iPhone contains a security protocol that will erase all of its own data in the event that someone tries to hack it incorrectly too many times. This precludes the possibility of the FBI simply trying all possible passcode combinations until they hit the correct one. Only Apple could even potentially develop the technology that could establish a “back door” that could enable the FBI to circumvent this data encryption and access the information on the phone. This sets the stage for the current conflict between Apple and the FBI.
Legal foundation of Apple/FBI battle
At the legal level, the FBI’s demand has been informed by the All Writs Act: an old law that was passed all the way back in 1789—the same year as the Constitution itself. This law simply affirms that
“federal courts can issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law” (Davidson, paragraph 3).
In the case under consideration here, this could potentially be interpreted to mean that federal judges can in fact require Apple to develop a back door to the iOS operating system, so that law enforcement will be able to more effectively pursue its investigation against the shooters at San Bernardino. However, not only is the law itself somewhat ambiguously phrased, it is not yet clear whether and how it should be applied when it comes to the case of a modern technological device such a smartphone.
Moreover, an inherent complication in the case consists of the simple fact that Apple does not in fact currently have the technology that is being demanded by the FBI (Cook). In essence, the FBI is asking Apple to construct a new technology, which does not currently exist, in accordance with the specification of the FBI itself. This is a very strong demand that could set a potentially dangerous precedent.
For example, Davidson has wondered:
“Could it [the federal government] require someone with distinct cultural or linguistic knowledge not only to give information but to use that expertise to devise ways for it to infiltrate that community? Could an imam, for example, be asked not only to tell what he knows but to manufacture an informant?” (paragraph 7).
One of the main questions raised by the conflict between Apple and the FBI consists of whether the government really does have the right to force a private party to use its skills in a specific way demanded by it. At the level of legal principle, this is very much what is at stake in the issue under consideration here.
Apple’s response to the FBI
Apple’s response to the FBI’s demand has been unequivocally rebellious. In an open letter to the customers of Apple, CEO Tim Cook has written the following:
“The implications of the government’s demand are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data” (paragraph 20).
Cook proceeds to delineate the ways in which Apple’s compliance with the FBI’s request would open the door to increased government surveillance of all Americans over the course of the indefinite future. The letter clearly indicates that this would both constitute a dangerous legal precedent and radically conflict with Apple’s own conception of its obligations to all of its customers.
The evidence would seem to indicate that this is surely not just an example of a case of paranoia on the part of Apple. As a matter of fact, the federal government already has several other cases in mind in which it would like to use the back door it is asking Apple to create for the San Bernardino case specifically. As Lichtblau and Goldstein have pointed out:
“The Justice Department is demanding Apple’s help in unlocking at least nine iPhones nationwide in addition the phone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., attackers” (paragraph 1).
In other words, Cook is obviously correct in affirming that the implications of the case at hand goes far beyond San Bernardino per se. Rather, if the FBI were able to force Apple into compliance regarding this case, then it could also force Apple to comply in a potentially limitless number of other cases, with no clear definition of what lines should be drawn, if any at all, on the government’s capacity to hack the personal devices of American citizens.
Moreover, it is worth considering Apple’s response, via the open letter written by Cook, in light of the recent revelation that the National Security Administration (another agency of the federal government) had been collecting a very large amount of information on ordinary Americans without warrant or due process of law. This came to light, of course, as a result of the efforts of Edward Snowden, about whom a documentary has recently been made, and about whom Americans are still divided regarding whether it would be more appropriate to call him a patriot or a traitor (Poitras).
In any event, what should be clear by now is that the federal government does in fact have an agenda of conducting massive surveillance against the American public, and if Apple does comply with the FBI’s demand, then this will probably lead to countless cases of hacked iPhones in the future, far beyond the single case of San Bernardino.
American reaction to FBI vs Apple
Both Apple and the FBI have effectively taken their respective cases on this issue public, in an attempt to win the goodwill of the American people as a whole for their own respective positions. Thus far, it would seem that the FBI has gained an edge in this regard. According to a recent poll of Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center,
“51% say Apple should unlock the iPhone to assist the ongoing FBI investigation. Fewer Americans (38%) say Apple should not unlock the phone to ensure the security of its other users’ information; 11% do not offer an opinion on the question” (paragraph 1).
This is, however, an ongoing story; and it is possible that the general opinion of the American public will change as more evidence emerges that Apple is in fact correct about the broader, long-range implications of the FBI’s demand. When one is asked whether a terrorist has a right to privacy, one would probably respond in the negative. The real problem, however, is that the issue at hand is quite simply much larger than that.
Indeed, the emotional appeal of hacking an iPhone in order to potentially protect Americans from future attacks like the one in San Bernardino seems to be a key driver of current public opinion. Mejia, Parvini, and Knoll, for instance, have discussed the rather emotional appeal in favor of Apple being forced to unlock the shooter’s iPhone: one person who was very close to one of the people killed at San Bernardino reportedly
“finds it disrespectful that the shooting has been folded into discussions of consumer privacy and believes that Apple has dished out what feels like an insult to the victims” (paragraph 5).
While one can sympathize with the pain of the loved ones of the San Bernardino victims, this line of thought can only be called patently absurd, at the level of simple logic. The reason that the issue has folded into one of privacy rights is due to the simple fact that this is exactly what is actually at stake in this situation, as the discussion of legal foundations above has made clear enough.
On the basis of the discussion that has been conducted in the present essay, the conclusion can be reached that Apple is very much in the right in its rebellion against the FBI, and that the cause of liberty demands that Apple not be required to comply with the federal government’s intrusive demands. For one thing, the past actions of the federal government—especially regarding the scandal regarding the National Security Administration—shows that the government has no qualms at all with conducted broad surveillance against common American men and women, and not just suspected terrorists.
Moreover, there is something deeply dystopian about the idea that the government can force a private party (i.e. Apple) to use its creativity and talent in order to facilitate its law enforcement efforts. This kind of promiscuous use of the All Writs Act could, for example, mean that a writer could be forced, by law, to write propaganda for the FBI, if the courts determined that this would help with counterterrorism efforts. This is clearly contrary to any principle of liberty that can be traced back to the Constitution of the United States.
In reaching this conclusion, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the conflict between Apple and the FBI is quite simply not just about San Bernardino. Everyone agrees, obviously, that terrorism must be stopped. But it is also worth remembering the justly famous maxim of Ben Franklin, here, that a people who value their safety more than their liberty deserve neither. If the FBI were to prevail in this conflict with Apple, then this would clearly open the door not only to the even further governmental surveillance of all Americans, but also to what amounts to the impressment of Americans into the forced service of their own government. This is exactly the kind of situation that the very first Americans rebelled against in the first place, and that natural spirit of liberty must be respected, come whatever else.
Cook, Tim. “A Message to Our Customers.” Apple, 16 Feb. 2016. .
Davidson, Amy. “The Dangerous All Writs Act Precedent in the Apple Encryption Case.” New Yorker. 19 Feb. 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. .
Lichtblau, Eric, and Joseph Goldstein. “Apple Faces U.S. Demand to Unlock 9 More iPhones.” New York Times. 23 Feb. 2016. .
Koren, Marina. “The Potential Terrorism behind the San Bernardino Shooting.” The Atlantic. 5 Dec. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. .
Mejia, Brittny, Sarah Parvini, and Corina Knoll. “How You Might Feel about Apple Right Now if Your Boyfriend Died in San Bernardino.” Los Angeles Times. 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. .
Pew Research Center. “More Support for Justice Department than for Apple in Dispute over Unlocking iPhone.” Author, 22 Feb. 2016. .
Poitras, Laura, dir. Citizenfour. Radius-TWC, 2014. Film.