Privacy and security must be balanced in the age of terrorism

Jonathan Lockwood

Jonathan Lockwood

We are living in dangerous times, and we must be prudent when it comes to forfeiting our privacy in the name of safety and security. The latest showdown between the government and Apple has opened the door for a robust debate on what measures should be taken to protect Americans.

The municipal government of New York City is the largest in the country, responsible for serving over 8 million residents. Yet for only $8.00 — yes, 800 pennies — any person can buy a master key to the city, no questions asked. The city has banned the sale of this key, but the entrepreneur sells from New Jersey, out of New York’s jurisdiction. The safety of New York is in the hands of an $8.00 key.

New 3D printing technology has also jeopardized the safety and privacy of millions of Americans that fly on airlines. A group of “security” enthusiasts found a picture posted of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) master key — a key that would open any piece of luggage with a “TSA approved” lock — and printed their own copies.

What we can learn from these experiences is that we cannot rely upon and put all of our faith in government to keep our secrets and belongings safe from prying eyes, yet that is exactly what the U.S. Department of Justice is asking us to do.

After the shootings in San Bernardino, the FBI issued a warrant to Apple, Inc., the makers of the iPhone, to extract information from the shooters’ iPhones. Apple does not have the software to decrypt iPhones with updated operating systems, an intentional choice made after Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency had been spying on Americans. Not satisfied with Apple’s decision, the Justice Department launched a massive PR campaign against one of the world’s most admired companies, implying that the Cupertino phone makers refused to help fight terrorism.

The campaign backfired as security experts and tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Dropbox, Evernote, Slack, Pinterest, and others took the side of Apple and the American citizen. Apple refused to make a “backdoor” entry into its iPhones, and the government sued.

The Justice Department claims that it only wants software to open “this one iPhone, this one time.” Should Apple comply with the FBI’s request, it would set precedent leading to cities and states requesting (read: demanding) backdoor access as well as additional requests from the federal government. It would also open Apple up to encryption cracking requests from foreign governments — China, Russia and Iran, for example — and hacks from virtual lock-pickers in a never-ending cycle that results in essentially no privacy or security for the owner of an iPhone (or eventually any other phone, for that matter).

Many Coloradans were surprised that newspapers, including The Daily Sentinel from Grand Junction, Colorado, would take the side of the federal government. Is it not the job of the press to hold the government accountable when it oversteps its constitutional boundaries? If we cannot count on newspapers to support our First Amendment rights — freedom of speech is right up there with freedom of the press — then why should they expect us to support theirs?

At the SXSW conference this week, President Obama claimed that “We can’t take an absolutist view on this,” and, “We can’t fetishize our phones above every other value.” Well, yes, we can take an absolutist view on the Constitution, and we’re not fetishizing our phones above every other value; we’re supporting the right to privacy from intrusion by the federal government.

Security and privacy are binary protections. Either we have security and privacy or we do not, and if the government forces Apple to create a backdoor to our iPhones, we have neither. As evidenced by the $8.00 master key in New York City or the 3D-printed master TSA key, we cannot trust government to keep the “backdoor” safe from intruders, and we must conclude that our phones would forever belong to the public domain.

It’s time to stand for privacy, for Apple and for the American citizen.

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