Modern field guide to security and privacy

Opinion: In Apple v. FBI, it's a matter of trust

While issues of national security and privacy are critical in the dispute between Apple and the FBI, we shouldn't forget that the outcome the legal battle will affect whether individuals can trust their government or the tech sector.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
A New York City police officer carried a barrier outside the Apple Store on Feb. 23.

The conflict between Apple and the FBI over the San Bernardino, Calif., shooter's iPhone featured prominently during last week's Republican presidential debate.

"Where do you stand," CNN's Dana Bash asked Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, "on national security or personal privacy?"

If only it were that simple.

The battle over whether Apple should be compelled to help law enforcement access an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who helped kill 14 people in a December terrorist attack, isn’t just about technology, national security or legal precedent.

The trust factor has been missing in the rapid-fire articles, editorials, opinion pieces, tweets, blog posts, and presidential candidates' quips. It involves the trust of Apple’s customers in the company, trust of citizens in the government, trust between the tech sector and the government. 

It's trust that is taking a beating as the US government and Apple prepare for a highly visible legal showdown over Mr. Farook's iPhone.

This debate between the government and Apple is crucial. It will affect the overall relationship between government and technology. It will set a precedent for security of our citizens. But the deeply damaged trust between government and tech makes it impossible to have a clear and thoughtful discussion on the topic. Setting an important precedent in this toxic environment is incredibly risky, and consumers deserve better.

In last week's debate, Republican candidate Ben Carson said, "I think allowing terrorists to get away with things is bad for America." While this is certainly true, Dr. Carson's comments also grossly oversimplify the issue.

It's healthy to have a vibrant debate about the iPhone case – and matters of privacy and national security more generally – but the way Dr. Carson and other candidates have talked about risks is encouraging a toxic tug-of-war between government and tech. No one benefits from animosity between the two. But the country would also suffer if one were enslaved to the other.

In Passcode earlier this month, Quinn DuPont wrote, "If you believe there is a genuine reason for some government intervention in the private sphere, then the government should also have a role in crafting the solution."

I don’t disagree. But mutually built solutions must necessarily be created on a bedrock of trust – one that currently doesn't exist between the tech sector and the government. 

For instance, despite the FBI’s original claims, it's not just Mr. Farook’s iPhone that law enforcement is looking for help to access. According to The New York Times, federal agents also want help with possibly nine other iPhones that appear to "involve run-of-the-mill prosecutions for offenses, like drug trafficking and pornography, rather than a high-profile terrorism investigation."

Even if the FBI's intention was for Apple to build a tool that would work on "on one phone in the entire world," as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio claimed in the debate, there’s no reasonable expectation that restriction would remain in force for very long.

We've seen other misuses of technologies created or purchased to fight terrorism. For instance, the FBI originally purchased StingRay devices, which masquerade as cell towers to collect metadata as well as voice and text messaging, to aid terrorism investigation cases. But they have also been used to surveil domestic activists and have been used by local police departments in routine criminal investigations.

When asked about this issue at a recent congressional hearing, FBI director James Comey said that everyone needs to "take a deep breath."

I agree. But that advice must apply to both sides. For our national security and for our personal privacy, we need to remove the accusations and hysteria from this conversation so trust among all parties can be rebuilt. Only at that point will we be able to have a healthy and productive conversation, and come to a resolution. It looks, however, like that’s a long way off.

Jamie Winterton is the director of strategy for Arizona State University's Global Security Initiative. Follow her on Twitter @j_winterton


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