Who's ready for another round of Shoot the Messenger of Potentially Catastrophic News for Millions of Americans?
It appears, for one, that the Justice Department is. Following Apple's denial of an F.B.I request that the tech-giant create a new version of its operating system to help break into the phones of the San Bernardino killers, the DoJ decided not to contribute to a robust debate over privacy, but to claim that Apple's refusal "appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy."
William Bratton, the police commissioner of New York City, also seems to want in. In his truly bizarre op-ed in the New York Times, he argued that Apple's denial of the F.B.I's request may be due not to an authentic concern over user privacy worthy of a 1,000-word public letter from the company's CEO, but a clever trick to help "sales by offering more privacy and security."
I know, you've heard this story before. After all, when Edward Snowden released thousands of documents uncovering a vast surveillance and cover-up effort by the U.S. government, the public became obsessed not with the difficult ethical questions of weighing privacy and security, but with the strange question of whether Snowden is a hero or a patriot.
Why is the American public so impervious to a vigorous discussion about privacy?
Perhaps it's because we don't understand it all that well. Take the oft-cited recent poll from the Pew Research Center, which found that 51% of Americans believe Apple should unlock the iPhone. But when the question is framed as "In response to court order tied to ongoing investigation of San Bernardino attacks, Apple should unlock/not unlock iPhone," as the Pew poll was, what exactly do you expect the result to be?
If the question was framed, more accurately, as: "Should Apple create a new version of iOS that can be used to break into any iPhone, anywhere, and hand it over to the F.B.I," I'm guessing the results may have been a little different. And I'm guessing that if people knew that accomplished hackers are able to easily break into encrypted iPhones, and that the F.B.I's broad request is thus incredibly unnecessary, the results may have swung in the other direction.
But more likely, the shallowness of the debate surrounding privacy is due to the willingness of public officials, from Bratton to those in the DoJ, to dismiss the concerns of a major tech CEO as "hyperbolic" or nothing more than a PR stunt, or to frame the debate through ignorantly simplistic declarations such as "dead people have no privacy rights."
The government ordering a company to create a master key that can break into any of our data-harboring iPhones is no small thing. You need not come to one conclusion or another, but let's be careful not to dismiss the issue just because the DoJ, or the F.B.I, or William Bratton told us to.