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Saturday, 27 February 2016

Apple vs FBI or Business vs State or privacy vs safety

Apple’s legal fight with the US authorities over access to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone is an intriguing and very interesting one. On the surface it looks like a fight over one (1) iPhone. Clearly it is not, else this dispute would never have seen the (public) light of day. I have no shadow of a doubt that Apple would have unlocked this iPhone (and the related iCloud account) if only this iPhone was at stake.

The real problem is that the US authorities (mis)use this specific iPhone incident to insist on generic access tools through new software to be written by Apple. Apparently, the US authorities have not been able to convince Apple to (secretly) cooperate with their request at an earlier stage.

Consequently, we now witness a public fight between a major US Corporation (privacy) and the US State (safety). The arguments used by both parties mirror the importance of that fight. Essentially, this is a fight about the role and scope of government. I expect that soon US politics will interfere. Some Republicans may have a hard time choosing between 'Business' and 'State'. Political meddling may cause a new US deadlock which would obviously benefit Apple.

This discussion about the role and scope of government is taking place in most countries, and especially the ones that have opted for severe anti terrorist laws (eg, France, UK, USA). Usually, the majority of citizens agree with - or allow - such laws considering the argument that only terrorists have something to hide rather than ordinary citizens. 

While this is a valid argument, it's not entirely true. The computer hack at the Canadian website for adulterers - Ashley Madison - resulted in several suicides (eg, BBC, CNN, WPsource). Everyone has something to hide, including ordinary citizens like you and me. 

In general, the legitimate fight against terrorism requires more and more disproportionate counter measures (eg, the Apple-FBI case). In that context, Apple has a legitimate argument in claiming that the constitutional rights of its customers are at stake. 

This fight between Business and State can only be decided by an independent party that uses legal arguments rather than business or political arguments. Actually, I am glad that Apple resists this FBI request and allows this matter to go to court. 

Unfortunately, the independence of judges is more and more at stake in several countries. The current political fight about a nomination for the US Supreme Court is another clear example. Mr Scalia, the Supreme Court judge who recently passed away, did not face any opposition by Democrats following his nomination by Reagan in 1986 (Wiki). Nowadays that would be unthinkable.

In general, government surveillance does not interest the general public. John Oliver addressed this in quite a funny way in a recent episode of HBO's Last Week Tonight. Nevertheless, the underlying message of this comedy show was that no secret is safe, especially in case of any computer server in the US domain. PolitiFact considered a similar statement as 'Mostly True'.

Episode of HBO's Last Week Tonight about government surveillance


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