Fear Is the Greatest Motivator in the Case of Apple vs. the FBI

On Monday, the Pew Research Center released a new poll surrounding the current battle between Apple and the Department of Justice with some telling results: 51 percent said Apple should unlock the San Bernardino suspect's iPhone, only 38 percent said they should not unlock the phone and 11 percent didn't offer an opinion on the situation. In other words, a majority of those polled -- from both the left and right it should be noted -- were in favor of Apple complying with the order to unlock the phone. What's clear from this latest survey is that regardless of Party affiliation, and despite revelations of unwarranted surveillance and increased government intrusion, people would rather give up more of their privacy in favor of a false sense of security. The simple reality is that fear was, is and always will be the greatest motivator to get the masses to support things -- even when those things may in fact harm them in the long run.

"Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation," wrote Apple's CEO Tim Cook last week. "In the wrong hands, this software - which does not exist today -- would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession. The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: building a version of IOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control."

And therein lies the crux of the issue. As Apple and other tech experts argue, building such a system would pretty much open up Pandora's box. If they were to create a separate operating system, there is no way to stop others, including cyber criminals, from using such a system. If the FBI were to win this case, there is also no limit as to how many local law enforcement agencies would request to utilize such an operating system to open iPhones in cases they are handling. In fact, officials from around the country have already stated their intent to do precisely that. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said his office has 175 iPhones it can't open because of encryption, and even penned an op-ed for the New York Times on Sunday trying to make the case for law enforcement.

The pushback against Apple has been so fierce from all ends of the spectrum, including from Presidential candidates of course. But what's clear is that there is a lack of information that is actually reaching the people. Apple outlined its position on a Q&A page on its site and emphasized that the government should withdraw its demands under the All Writs Act and, instead form "a commission or other panel of experts on intelligence, technology, and civil liberties to discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy, and personal freedoms." This point is key. Why is the government persistent in pushing for a legal measure that will set a precedent for other local agencies, as well as set a precedent for future methods to get tech giants to create alternatives to their own security structures?

Neither Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, or anyone else siding with Apple want to prevent the FBI from doing their job and keeping Americans safe. In fact, as Cook highlighted, Apple suggested that the FBI pair the San Bernardino shooter's phone to a previously joined network in order to back up the data and retrieve it. But as he stated, Apple learned that while the attacker's iPhone was in FBI custody, the Apple ID password was changed and therefore the phone could no longer access iCloud services. Perhaps the question we should all be asking is why the FBI didn't listen to Apple's suggestions, or why they perhaps went ahead with their own attempts to crack the phone first when they clearly didn't know what they were doing. Now they want to turn around and make Apple the bad guys.

In December, President Obama delivered a rare Sunday night speech from the Oval Office where one of his strongest lines was: "Freedom is more powerful than fear". But do we truly believe that? While freedom is great incentive for people to innovate, create and advance society (like so many in the tech industry have done), fear pushes folks to action like not much else can. Fear is why many Americans supported the invasion of Iraq circa '03 and were misled into believing that they had 'weapons of mass destruction'. Fear is why we collectively gave up so many of our liberties and why we allowed intrusive policies like the Patriot Act to become law. Fear is why we saw the rise of mass surveillance, metadata collection and an invasion of our privacy. Fear is why people are okay with looking the other way when innocent civilians are killed from our wars, our drone campaigns and our actions with other allies around the world. Are we now going to allow fear to drive us to give up even more of our liberties? Or will freedom truly win over fear?

If there was a way to unlock the attackers' phones without creating a brand new operating system, I'm pretty sure Tim Cook and others would have been more than willing to share and assist the FBI with it. To suggest that they are somehow doing this for publicity is absolutely absurd when, as the Pew poll indicates, most Americans are in favor of them unlocking the iPhone, and candidates like Trump have called for a boycott of Apple products if they don't comply with the court order. That clearly isn't good publicity. Rather, tech giants like Apple are just trying to ensure that the bedrock principles of Silicon Valley itself -- advancing society via technology while maintaining protections for its users -- remains intact.

This isn't an issue about the privacy rights of the San Bernardino shooters or any other alleged killers; it's about the privacy that we all hold dear in our own lives. If there was a mechanism by which to bypass security features, anyone's iPhone could conceivably be decoded remotely. Aside from the obvious implications of that, we need to think of other consequences as well. Even the accusation of committing any crime could be enough incentive for authorities to get into someone's phone and potentially use anything they find to make their case. A presumption of innocence could virtually (no pun intended) cease to exist.

Apple v. the FBI shouldn't be taken lightly. The results of this battle, and the larger encryption debate, will impact all of us in one way or another. Yes, we are in a brave new world, but it would be nice if we could keep a semblance of the old where the notion of privacy was a fundamental basic right.