As most people now know, the war between the information technology sector and the government continues to heat up. Recently, several key presidential staff members, including the attorney general, the White House chief of staff, and the directors of the FBI met with senior executives from Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Apple. The agenda for the meeting was clear—how do we make it more difficult for terrorists to use the Internet as a recruitment tool? While the IT sector—led by Apple—continues to resist the president’s plea for full cooperation, the idea that the government should be more not less involved in regulating terrorist activities on the Internet and specifically, social media platforms is one issue that politicians across the spectrum appear to be embracing. At the heart of the debate, however, is a bigger issue—namely, the extent to which private businesses should and even must be committed to engaging in practices that promote the public good. In today’s eLeap post, we dissect the current debate, examine whether or not private businesses should be obliged to respond to government demands (even if and when they appear to run against industry standards), and consider what’s at stake for businesses and the public in Apple’s showdown with the FBI.
Apple’s Commitment to Customer Privacy
From Apple’s earliest development, Steve Jobs wanted to create a computer with which no one would be able to tamper—and he really meant no one. In sharp contrast to other operating systems, Apple has always been committed to creating a closed system—a system closed to hackers, computer hobbyists, and even Apple’s own engineers. It’s no surprise, then, that in 2016, Apple is now coming up against the U.S. government itself. As Tim Cook, Apple’s current CEO, stated in 2014 with the release of the company’s iOS8, “[We] have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.”
To avoid ever having to deal with authorities seeking to access data from an Apple product, the company has created a product that is even unlockable by the company, since in contrast to other tech manufacturers, Apple cannot bypass its customers’ passcodes. While this may be great news for consumers, as we are now witnessing, the move may also have consequences that are not necessarily in the interest of the public good at large. At issue here, however, are two somewhat different questions: 1.) Can or should Apple be forced to unlock its products to serve criminal, especially terrorist, investigations? and 2.) Does Apple have an ethical obligation to cooperate with authorities when the public good may be better served by unlocking its products?
On the one hand, we are faced with a legal question and on the other hand, we are faced with an ethical question. While the former question will need to be decided in the courts, the latter question is a different story. In short, the question asks whether or not private companies should change their own policies and commitments when there is a compelling reason to assume these policies are not in the interest of the public good, and this is a question of relevance to all private businesses operating on all scales.
Is Apple’s Commitment to Customers’ Privacy Ethical?
The FBI essentially wants Apple to write software that would give it unlimited attempts at a PIN in order to open an iPhone. The FBI claims the software can be developed by Apple and also maintains that the software will only ever be used for the phone under investigation in the San Bernardino shooting incident. Apple has fired back and claimed that the software cannot be easily developed and that there’s a high risk that any software developed would be used on other hardware overtime and even eventually compromise the security of private data on iPhones on a broader basis.
At the center of Apple’s case is the contention that computer code is language and therefore, it is protected under First Amendment rights. As Apple explains, “Under well-settled law, computer code is treated as speech within the meaning of the First Amendment,” so this conclusion should naturally extend to the current case. But is Apple protecting customers’ privacy rights and free speech rights, or simply using its massive corporate presence to establish its own rules and regulations, even in relation to Homeland Security concerns? Moreover, what’s the ethical way forward in this complex case?
On the one hand, there’s no question that Apple’s commitment to protecting customer privacy is driven by an ethical stance. If one dares to imagine a scenario in which a more oppressive government comes into power in the United States, it does seem important and in the best interest of the public that personal phones remain locked, even if and when the government demands that they be unlocked. After all, what if under an oppressive government, the phones of Black Lives Matter protesters or people supporting the plight of undocumented immigrants were routinely subject to government investigations? While one hopes and assumes this will never happen, if a precedent is set—Apple caves into the FBI’s demands to unlock the phone in the San Bernardino incident—there’s a risk that phones could be unlocked under different circumstances in the future. Is this the nation in which we want to live? On the other hand, protecting the information of terrorists also raises major ethical dilemmas. So is Apple ethical? In this case, one may conclude that the company is not responding in the most ethical manner. Looking at the bigger picture, however, the company is erring on the side of ethics.
What We Can Learn from Apple’s Standoff with the FBI
In reality, few companies will ever end up in Apple’s situation, since virtually no other company in the U.S. has the resources to fight the government itself. Yet, businesses large and small have something to learn from this case. First, the case clearly reveals that private businesses have a role to play in promoting the public good. Indeed, whether or not you agree with Apple’s stance, at the very least, they are making a case for the role private businesses play in public issues, including promoting ongoing debates about key issues, including freedom of speech and private rights. After all, beyond being resistant, Apple’s refusal to unlock the San Bernardino phone has created a robust public debate on the extent to which the war on terror should or should not be used to compromise privacy and freedom of speech rights. Second, the Apple case also raises another key point—if private businesses benefit from government policies (e.g., in the U.S., robust policies designed to support for-profit businesses), are they also obligated to reciprocate in some way? Whether or not giving back necessarily means being in compliance with the government, even when it demands that a company do something that runs against their own mandate, is a question that no doubt will continue to be debated over the coming months.