Opinion:  Apple in courtroom standoff with FBI

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Liberty still trumps safety

By David Xaviel

Times Staff




I begin with a question I once asked in a political science class after September 11, 2001:  What good is liberty if you are dead, but what good is life if you have no liberty?  Yet, at the end of the day, liberty should always trump safety.  A good example of a country that was more concerned with national security than with the sovereignty of the individual is Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler.  And as we have learned from whistle-blower Ed Snowden, the government will find ways to invade your privacy regardless of whether it is legal.

I would rather live in country where the government has to feel uneasy about invading the privacy of its citizens to protect them, rather than be coaxed into absolving the government of guilt for unconstitutional activity.  I accept that national security requires dirty work, but I want the government to feel uneasy about doing it.  That should be part of the burden of the social contract.

Maybe, there are times when big brother should be watching, but I don’t want big brother to feel validated for doing it.


The courtroom standoff between Apple Inc. and the Federal Bureau of Investigations is most important conversation about technology and digital privacy.  The standoff began after a judge ordered the Cupertino-based company to write code to hack into the phone of Syed Farook, whom was behind the shootings in San Bernardino last December.


The Silicon Valley based business believes that the U.S. government, anonymous hackers, or governments like China and Russia would potentially abuse a backdoor to unlock products.  Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore) echoed the sentiment in saying, “If the FBI can force Apple to build a key, you can be sure authoritarian regimes like China, and Russia will turn around and force Apple to hand it over to them ….  They will use that key to oppress their own people and steal U.S. trade secrets.”  Apple CEO, Tim Cook, issued a statement that the company believes, “While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products.  And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect,” and expects that the government, “form a commission or other panel of experts on intelligence, technology and civil liberties to discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy and personal freedoms.”  That is why the company store has contested a judge’s order to write codes for the FBI to unlock the phone of Farook.


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The FBI believes that the All Writs Act of 1789 is legal grounds for a court order to compel Apple to make a key to unlock the phone in question.  The government agency believes that it is no different than getting a court order to obtain the emails or phone records of a customer from, Google or Verizon, among others.  Nevertheless, in the cases of warrants for emails and phone calls—both forms of data must go through company servers, which you agree to in order to use their services, which makes that data available to the companies without having to hack into accounts or property.  FBI director, James Comey, has responded by stating that technology, “creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure: privacy and safety.”  “That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living.  It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living.  It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before.”


The conundrum with the issue is that there are valid points by both sides of the argument but this issue is unfortunately tilting in favor of the immediacy of threats to national security rather than being addressed through legislation and public discourse in the Congress.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”  While Franklin certainly was not talking about digital privacy in the 18th century and while it is okay to value safety–we should value liberty over safety and continue to strive for liberty rather than give the benefit of the doubt to a government that doesn’t necessarily have our best interests at heart.