The controversy swirling about the Apple and FBI saga over a terrorists’ cellphone is old news by now, even as the battle lines have not been clarified and the public, virtually split on the subject, wrestles with the dilemma. In this Privacy v. security struggle, some themes have emerged which rebuff early claims by the FBI that it only wants the information to be unlocked on the San Bernardino shooter’s phone.
Since then, they have admitted that there are many other cases (and phones) waiting in the pipeline, and Apple has remained steadfast in refusing to cave-in to the government pressure and has, expectedly, garnered vast support from its Silicon Valley brethren.
The FBI stands on strong legal footing, as it relies on a centuries-old constitutional statute, the All Writs Act, which clearly states that a judge has a constitutional right to enforce a decision rendered. So, it may prevail in the Apple case. Of course, one has to wonder how different Apple’s position would be if the drama currently being played out in the offices of Apple, Google, Facebook, or any other significant tech firm.
But even that scenario doesn’t focus on the larger, over-arching problem – that technology is outstripping the resources of law enforcement and the courts by virtue of its ability to leap-frog existing codes and norms by dint of rapid revolution and technological advances. So, what is happening now is a prelude of things to come, not only with encryption technologies, but everything from artificial intelligence to drones, robotics, and synthetic biology.
“Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”
In this context, it is difficult to envision a schematic where law enforcement, being hampered in the recruiting game by things such as lower wages, could compete with private enterprises’ innovations, which are ever more geared to privacy. In this situation, in order to level the playing field, governments will be forced to legislate intrusions by law enforcement.
If proof is needed of technology’s rapid development, look no further than the iPhone, which was released in 2007. It was little more than an iPod with an embedded cell phone. This has evolved into a device which captures our deepest personal secrets, keeps track of our lifestyles and habits, and is becoming our health coach and mentor. It was inconceivable just five years ago that there could be such debates about unlocking this device.
Yet here we are, a mere decade later, debating about a ubiquitous gizmo used by tens of millions of law-abiding citizen, but because it is so successful, it has been hijacked by a relatively few bad actors. Some have gone to great lengths to argue that the fixation over unlocking cell phones is a dodge to turn attention away from more worrisome intrusions on privacy such as CCTV cameras, sensors and so forth. Soon these cameras will be affixed to drones to spy on us 24/7 in a variety of locations, so that the surveillance will be constant.
Up to this point, I have limited the scope of government intrusion on private technology enterprise to cell phones with the current Apple-FBI flap as a backdrop. But technology running rings around law enforcement, whose efforts to corral it pale by comparison to the advances and innovations taking place in other areas. AI and robots get much of the ink, but private enterprise is rapidly developing means to produce all manner of living things with genetics and cloning. One can only imagine how future contests between government and private enterprise will unfold as these innovations go mainstream and hit the open market!
In many cases, companies themselves are unable to get a handle on or keep a lid on the pace of growth. How will policy makers possibly be expected to keep up, when companies can’t? In the meantime, while writing this piece, news broke of another two terrorist attacks in Brussels – one on a commuter train, one at the airport. At this rate, a majority of people will gladly give up some freedoms to be safe. In that sense, the terrorists are winning, even as they are being hunted down.