Balancing Privacy and Law Enforcement: Apple vs. FBI

May 10, 2016

Links from this article: The FBI obtained the iPhone of the shooters and was eager to search through the phone for any evidence or information relating to the attack However, Apple claimed that they did not have the ability to decrypt the phone. The writ was granted. an epic fight pitting privacy against national security

Every system of government must balance individual privacy and rights, against state control. Where the lines are drawn determines what type of society we live in. One the one hand, the more we protect individual privacy, the less control the government has in protecting the public at large. On the other hand, if the government has too much control, citizens’ privacy is limited.

There is also another element to consider in a free and democratic society: can the government force a corporation to breach its contracts with its customers in the interests of public security?

This was the dilemma in the dispute between Apple and the FBI in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack.

For those of you that aren’t aware, in December 2015, two individuals committed a gruesome terrorist attack in San Bernardino, killing 14 people at an office party. The FBI obtained the iPhone of the shooters and was eager to search through the phone for any evidence or information relating to the attack. However, the phone was password protected. The FBI didn’t have the password and if they attempted multiple incorrect combinations there was a risk that the iPhone’s data would erase in its entirety.

The FBI needed Apple’s help to access the information inside the phone. However, Apple claimed that they did not have the ability to decrypt the phone. Furthermore, Apple wasn’t willing to create the software to do so, as this would essentially give the government (and whoever else obtained this new technology) the ability to unlock any phone - yes, even yours!

This led to the Department of Justice (DOJ) applying to the court for an order under the 1789 All Writs Act compelling Apple to create and provide the new software to the FBI. The writ was granted. The use of the All Writs Act was unprecedented and many legal experts said it was likely to prompt “an epic fight pitting privacy against national security.”

Apple objected to this order and did not assist the FBI in trying to decrypt the phone. However, the FBI was eventually successful in its decryption efforts. Many allege that a third party came to the FBI’s assistance. As a result, the FBI was able to gain access to the information stored in the phone.

Who’s Side Are You On?

The battle between Apple and the FBI created worldwide headlines, even becoming one of the pressing questions in the recent Republican Presidential debate. There appears to be no clear consensus on what side the American people are on, which illustrates how tough it is to balance privacy and government regulation.

Pros and Cons of Apple’s Privacy Position

  • Assurance that information in your phone is safe and secure
  • For the time being, stops a precedent from being created.

Pros and Cons of FBI Security Position

  • Allow FBI and Government to protect the public from crimes including terrorist attacks - such as San San Bernardino
  • Precedent established. Risk of government or others gaining access to other phones, or requiring Microsoft and other big tech companies to give assistance to access their devices.

Some popular figures have voiced their opinion on the matter:


Donald Trump: “To think that Apple won’t allow us to get into her (sic) cell phone. Who do they think they are?”

Justice Department Spokesperson: “It is unfortunate that Apple continues to refuse to assist the Department in obtaining access to the phone of one of the terrorists involved in a major terror attack on U.S. soil.”

Cyrus Vance, Manhattan District Attorney: “Decisions about who can access key evidence in criminal investigations should be made by courts and legislatures, not by Apple and Google.”

For Apple

Alex Abdo, American Civil Liberties Union: “This is an unprecedented, unwise, and unlawful move by the government. Apple deserves praise for standing up for its right to offer secure devices to all of its customers.”

Lance Ulanoff, Mashable: “Forget the technology. If the FBI successfully forces Apple to create a new OS just to brute-force hack its own product, it’s the first step through a very dark one-way door — for all of us.”

Mark Cuban: “Amen. A standing ovation. They did the exact right thing… Encryption is easy. It is like wearing a seatbelt in your car. For years we didn’t. Then we did and it was smart.”

As is evident by the widely contrasting opinions noted above, people are very divided on the issue. We all want privacy protected - until someone else’s privacy interferes with our safety.

With the amount of personal information stored in our digital devices growing daily however, it is essential that we come to an appropriate resolution of this issue.

In the end, it’s all about balancing privacy and law.

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