The battle between the US government (FBI) and Apple is taking on the tone of a political campaign. And while the country’s opinions may be about evenly divided in the contest, Apple is scoring coveted endorsements for, and supporters of, for its stance. Some of the support has raised eyebrows, as many are the same companies that Apple has previously criticized by lobbing veiled accusations that they exploit your personal information to sell ads, and effectively endanger your privacy.
Apparently, in this seminal moment, those facts will be overlooked in favour of the broader principles at play, but it serves to underscore the high-stakes nature of the controversy for Silicon Valley. Apparently, in this seminal moment, those facts will be overlooked in favour of the broader principles at play, but it serves to underscore the high-stakes nature of the controversy for Silicon Valley.
Or are Apple’s allies, such as Google and Twitter, being hypocritical in backing Apple on this privacy issue when they have such a callous disregard for privacy as long as it enriches their own coffers? It is more than just tech firms rallying around a comrade in arms. It isn’t difficult to be on the side of private enterprise in this controversy. According to Larry Downs, a scholar at Georgetown University’s Center for Business and Public Policy,
“The government can put me in jail, Google, Facebook and Twitter cannot.”
Hence, since Americans are worried about government overreach and are fearful of it, good business dictates the benefits of currying favour with them, and erring on the side of Apple and privacy.
As a result, leading tech companies and civil liberties advocates say they’ll file “friends of the court” legal arguments in support of Apple’s position. Among those backing Apple are some of its biggest competitors, including Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, which have signalled they’ll file a joint brief on Apple’s behalf. A group of 17 smaller tech firms, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Airbnb and Reddit submitted a separate joint filing, as have AT&T and Intel.
That often fierce competitors have banded together in this effort is telling, and an obvious early-in-the-game ploy to sway the public to their thinking. It is also indicative of their concern for the dire ramifications, should the FBI be successful. After all, even FBI Director James Comey has opined that this case will not be a “one off”, and that more such cases and requests are in the pipeline… and that’s just from one arm of this government! What will be the reaction from other agencies and other governments if the FBI wins?
Microsoft’s joining the fray is a somewhat surprising development, given Bill Gates’ comments immediately after the debate between the FBI and Apple came to loggerheads. Gate’s quickly reconsidered his posture after being lambasted by industry cohorts, saying that his initial comments didn’t accurately reflect his “views on this” matter. He also added that he thought the right balance and safeguards need to be found in the courts and in Congress, and that the debate provoked by this case is valuable.
Not surprisingly, all the Republican presidential candidates have sided with the FBI, while the presumed Democratic nominee, Hilary Clinton, since the country is evenly split on the issue, is typically still on the fence gauging the political winds. This is curious, because as a non-candidate as Secretary of State, one of her favorite pilot programs, accelerated during the 2011 Arab Spring crisis, was to equip dissidents and activists around the world with devices to help them communicate and evade censorship. Now, like the Obama administration, she seeks to straddle the fence on what is, in essence, censorship.
Not lost on the supporters of Apple’s position, and making the issue more monumental, is the global impact in this digital age of what, on its face, is a domestic court case. Moreover, if you’re a believer in “government-creep” as I am, one can make the case that not only would the door be ajar for other international countries to demand similar concessions from companies on privacy matters relating to terrorism and criminality, but privileged information contained on journalists’ devices could also be at risk.
Just a couple of days ago, the Turkish government, in an effort to silence criticism, raided the offices of a prominent newspaper in a bid to shutter it. This action, mind, didn’t come from a rogue government, or one that has a history of such repression, but from a country that would like to join the EU and play a prominent role on the world stage!
In contrast to the outpouring of support for Apple from the industry and other quarters, those advocating the government’s position are a mere trickle – about a half-dozen. Also, as you might expect, Stephen Larson, the San Bernardino’s victims’ lawyer, is dismissive of Apple’s assertion saying,
“So many of Apple’s arguments are red herrings because this is not about privacy more than any other search in a criminal investigation is about privacy. That is scaremongering and that is false.”
Fortunately for supporters of privacy who are on Apple’s side, the diffident, dithering, Obama White House, has not endorsed the FBI’s position and its minions who do its bidding. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers, have been equally equivocal. In a prepared statement, the White House said,
“The United States government firmly supports the development and robust adoption of strong encryption, which is a key tool to secure commerce and trade, safeguard private information, promote free expression and association. At the same time, encryption poses a grave challenge for our national security and law enforcement professionals.”
No fooling! Now if only the courts will concur, everything will be fine and dandy.