As many U. S. citizens awoke this morning, they were greeted by the news of the most recent battle of the civilized world against those who would seek to change it through terrorist attacks. In Belgium, at least three bombs – two in an airport and another in the subway system in Brussels – have killed at least 30 people and injured 230 more (and the numbers are increasing). As always, the world is stunned at the ferocity and sophistication of the attacks as the process begins of investigating and capturing the people involved.
Much of what will occur in Belgium and on the European continent over the next few days will rest in the hands of security agencies and law enforcement investigators, probably with assistance from our Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigations. These two departments – along with INTERPOL, MI6, FIS and several other powerful organizations, not to mention local law enforcement in each country – will put together the smallest threads of evidence, discover how and where the bombs were built and, eventually, find those responsible for the attacks (whether they are apprehended alive or dead doesn’t really matter, unless we’re truly interested in why they did what they did). But what happens for the United States, when we’ve built a society that treasures security as much as their citizens’ privacy?
This is a monumental question today – at what price do we want security? At what price do we sacrifice privacy? – with several cases that the federal government is currently pursuing in courts across the United States. Currently in Brooklyn, a federal judge has denied the U. S. Department of Justice’s request that Apple assist them in unlocking the iPhone of a drug suspect, citing that he lacked the authority to be able to order the computer giant to disable the security protocols that they established to ensure that their customers’ information was safe. Likewise, the popular messaging application WhatsApp has come under scrutiny from the feds because the encryption used in their program prevents anyone outside of the sender and receiver from seeing what has been passed. If pushed in a courtroom, would WhatsApp fall under wiretap orders – more than a decade old that were passed for landlines – or would it be protected under privacy laws?
The biggest fight, however, has been the Department of Justice’s ongoing battle against Apple regarding the iPhone of one of the terrorists responsible for the attacks in San Bernardino, CA, late last year. Syed Farook, one of the terrorists killed after Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, ruthlessly murdered 14 people (most of whom were Farook’s co-workers) and injured another 22 people before they were gunned down by law enforcement as they attempted to escape the scene. As a part of the massive amount of evidence against them, Farook’s iPhone was allegedly found to possibly have information on it that could be beneficial to law enforcement (adding information as to potential accomplices or groups that might have helped the duo), but was inaccessible due to the security features that Apple employs on every iPhone that customers around the world purchase.
If there are too many attempts at an individual’s password for an iPhone, then the phone completely erases whatever information is on the device, locks up and becomes completely useless for whoever has the device, be it the owner, a thief or, in this case, the federal government. Naturally, investigators want to preserve any information that might be on the terrorist’s phone and, in the case of Farook’s phone, the potential destruction of whatever evidence might be contained on the device is something that is necessary to avoid. But should there be some way to get around this security feature?
The feds did kindly ask Apple to create a “backdoor” that would allow them to access Farook’s phone but, with their customers not only in the United States but worldwide in mind, Apple politely declined to create such a plan, program or application to assist the government. In Apple’s eyes, allowing such a move for the government would allow them to do that with virtually any iPhone they wanted access to (see the Brooklyn case above). For their part, the feds are saying no, we’ll only use it this one time, honest as they try to plead their case to the court of public opinion.
Currently the battle is raging in the real courts, with the Department of Justice so far winning the judicial argument as Apple maintains its privacy and security rights. The higher up the debate in the judicial branch has gone, however, it has become more difficult for the feds to be able to justify their breach of privacy and security, especially the “one time only” usage of such programs to penetrate Apple’s devices. Public opinion is split on the issue, with some attacking Apple for its stance while others are applauding Apple for standing up for the rights of citizens not only from the U. S. but also around the world. That battle has paused, at least for the moment, as the federal government yesterday asked to cancel a hearing in Los Angeles for reasons unknown.
The answers to the questions that surround this case – at what price security? at what price privacy? – are ones that, if you ask ten different U. S. citizens, you would probably end up with ten different answers. Since the attacks of 9/11, the U. S. citizen has consistently given up pieces of their privacy, their right to keep the government out of certain aspects of their lives, in exchange for the (false?) cocoon of “security” that is supposed to be provided by said government. And, for the most part, it has worked – there hasn’t been another 9/11 style attack in the nearly 15 years since that dark day.
Just how far does the government need to go, though? Whether you like him or not, whistleblower Edward Snowden pointed out the vast amounts of data that is scooped up by U. S. agencies in the name of “homeland security,” and in many cases it was questioned why the government needed such extreme measures. The result was a minimal slowdown on data taken but, in the end, vast amounts of data collection continue unabated.
The need to be “safe” is an emotion that human beings consistently want to feel but it shouldn’t come at the sacrifice of the government consistently invading private aspects of your life. What books you order from Amazon, the websites you read online, even particular groups you interact with physically or online – all of these things are something that shouldn’t be known by the government. At the snap of a finger, however, a dossier can be created on probably every U. S. citizen that can trace their activities, a penetration into personal life that the government shouldn’t have.
I am fine with a “surgical” strike by law enforcement groups like the FBI. Go to the courts and obtain a subpoena, have a singular target for a specific time and ask whatever tech companies might have on the subject. A blanket gathering of information is not what was envisioned by the creators of the United States, in fact the federal government was meant to stay as far away from infringing on the individual as possible. Furthermore, to tell a company they HAVE to do something against their will – especially when that would violate the personal trust that people have put in a product that company produces – also violates the rights of the people against potential tyranny.
General Michael Hayden, a former director of the National Security Agency, said it best. “Look, I used to run the NSA, OK?” Hayden told USA TODAY earlier this year. “Back doors are good. Please, please, Lord, put back doors in, because I and a whole bunch of other talented security services around the world — even though that back door was not intended for me — that back door will make it easier for me to do what I want to do, which is to penetrate.”
The battle between the rights of the people and the protection of those people by the government will continue to rage onward. But the answer to the questions asked is that security shouldn’t be an extreme price, but privacy shouldn’t be sacrificed at the altar of security. Once privacy is shattered, any semblance of security disappears also.