The FBI and the iPhone: Just one bite of the Apple?

The FBI and the iPhone: Just one bite of the Apple?

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The Department of Justice says its demand to break into an iPhone is a one-time, special circumstance; but life is a series of one-time special circumstances.

WASHINGTON, February 22, 2016 — The FBI wants access to the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, who killed 14 people in San Bernardino. This isn’t a frivolous demand. There is a pressing national security question here: Did Farook act alone, or was he connected to a terrorist network? On that question hang American lives.

Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, issued a statement containing his reasons for rejecting the FBI’s demands, and like those demands, they aren’t frivolous. If Apple complied, a great deal of information about Apple’s encryption system would be turned over to the FBI. In addition, Apple would supply the FBI with a version of its iOS operating system that would be loaded onto Farook’s iPhone and that would allow federal investigators bypass the phone’s security features.

It would be as if Apple created a skeleton key to all its phones and tablets, a key that would open the secrets of anyone using an Apple product to anyone who could get the key.

The Justice Department has been emphatic that they want this tool to open just one iPhone, and that it will not be used again. They want Apple to help this once, under a one-time special circumstance, to circumvent the iPhone’s security; they will ask to do it again.

There are two problems with this promise. First, knowledge gained won’t simply be forgotten. The FBI will learn things about Apple’s security features that Apple can’t force it to unlearn. Second, life is nothing but a series of special circumstances. There is always an excuse to break a standard, a law or a protocol. Having done it once, you have no credible promise not to do it again.

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The issue here isn’t just one of national security versus corporate marketing strategies, nor just of federal overreach versus protection of individual privacy. Just as important are the issues of the meaning of law and the nature of morality.

It is clear that the people demanding Apple’s help are uncomfortable with the demand; they implicitly understand the problem. Otherwise they would not promise so hard never to do it again. This is a special case. Lives are on the line. These circumstances will never arise again. No one need fear that this skeleton key will ever be used again.

Because life is a series of special circumstances, we can be certain that another good reason to use that key will arise. And because it is easier to cross a line for the second time than for the first, the result will be that the government’s “one-time” use of that key won’t be the last time.

This is a principle that we all understand. It is far easier to make a rule 100 percent binding than to make it 99 percent binding. “Just this once” will inevitably become “just one more time” until no special pleading is required. This isn’t a case of the slippery-slope fallacy, but a design feature of human nature.

The government’s reasons to cross the line the first time have to be compelling, and in this case they are. Lives hang in the balance. If Farook was connected to a terrorist network, there’s no more important job facing the FBI than to find the connection and the network. They would be irresponsible not to want the information on his phone.

The government’s reasons to cross the line a second time will be less compelling. And having acceded to the government’s demands the first time, Apple will find it easier to do it a second time. It will also find it harder to resist when the Chinese and the Russians demand a little bit of that same love.

If laws, protocols and norms of behavior are broken, they no longer have power to compel. For this reason, “enhanced interrogation techniques”—torture—are a very big deal. We crossed a line that no one believes we won’t cross again. Conservatives who side with the government on this should consider the way that social standards have fallen before the liberal onslaught; once you cross lines, it’s easier and easier to keep on crossing them.

Apple’s critics argue that Apple’s motives are impure. That would hardly be surprising. The bottom line of business is the bottom line. But Apple’s motives are irrelevant. Captured terrorists might plead that it violates American principles to extract information under torture. Their self-interest and hypocrisy in pointing that out makes it no less true.

Whatever Apple’s motives are, the idea of giving the U.S. government a key to enter our secure devices and look at our personal data should be a concern. The NSA has looked at regular people’s intimate personal photography just for fun, and the government loses highly classified information with depressing regularity. Imagine if Hillary Clinton were Attorney General rather than Secretary of State; how secure would that key be?

Life is one special, extenuating circumstance after another. If you don’t want to live in a data fishbowl, that’s a good reason to reject the FBI’s pleading that this extenuating circumstance is unique. You can’t put the mushroom cloud back in the shiny ball of plutonium.

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Jim Picht
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.