Apple's Forbidden Fruit

Why Tim Cook is dead wrong.

Did you realize that the federal government can search your home? If they have a duly authorized search warrant, they can go right into your underwear drawer, and I think they can even bag some of it up to take it back to headquarters for further scrutiny. Mine too, though in my case they would probably just quickly shut the drawer and move on.

They can search anything. Are we worried about that? Is Tim Cook worried? If not, why not? We are talking about granting the government authority to forcibly enter your home and search your most personal belongings, including the filing cabinets.

Do you know what is kept in people's filing cabinets? Up until only a few decades ago, that is where most people kept all of their most personal data.

I've seen it dozens of times: A person is known to have committed a crime, they were caught shooting at the scene, for example, and they have been apprehended. What do we see next on the news? Federal investigators, having already broken into the suspect's home, are carrying out computers and papers and all kinds of personal stuff.

I am never, ever worried about investigators having access to that property -- no matter how private -- even though, potentially, they now have a means to enter any home whatsoever, including mine. I don't think that is dangerous at all. The only people worried about this are criminals.

In fact, it would be criminal to build homes making it impossible for investigators to exercise search warrants. It is the Constitution which allows for the execution of search warrants.

What if a builder invented a cost-effective way to allow typical buildings, like homes, to completely lock down in such a way that it would be impossible to enter without leveling the building and destroying the evidence? Perhaps the only way to open the lock would be a thumb print and retina scan, for example, otherwise nobody enters.

If we apprehended a gunman in public and all of the evidence against that individual was inside a residence secured to that extent, investigators would be stopped in their tracks. Don't we want investigators entering that house? Isn't it imperative, for public safety, to enter that house and collect the evidence?

In my judgement, in such a case, the builder would be obstructing justice as prescribed in the Constitution - they would be making impossible the execution of a legally binding warrant.

Why should a builder be able to do that? Shouldn't we insist that builders not create safe and impenetrable havens for criminals among us?

It is noteworthy that in this age of frigid political polarization, where seemingly nobody can agree about anything, mistrust of the government is a value deeply shared by both liberals and conservatives. That mistrust manifests itself in different ways, this being one of them, because when it comes to granting the government lots of police and investigative power, conservatives appear to trust the government a great deal more than liberals.

Do conservatives trust the government too much in this case? The question is moot, because whether liberals like it or not, the government needs to be able to potentially have full access to private property, so that all constitutionally valid search warrants may be executed.

Do liberals trust the government too little in this case? I think the question is rather this: Is it not certain that we should trust the government more than the criminal world?

Certainly there must be warrants and due process -- this is no blank check. This particular issue is about access to one phone. The broader issue is one of having means of gaining access into any one phone in the future, in order to obey the Constitution and uphold law. Is there a danger in that? Of course. Could a corrupt judge execute a search order to enter an innocent person's home in a corrupt county and do great personal harm? Of course. Nevertheless, we must have such investigative tools.

Is it not ironic and perhaps misguided to believe so strongly in the good influence of government, then in the next breath to express revulsion at the suggestion our government should have complete capacity to fulfill all of the duties of enforcing law?

Nobody is being naive. The founding fathers were not naive. There is very little difference -- if any -- between allowing investigators with a search warrant to access a particular smart phone and allowing investigators with a search warrant to access our particular homes and underwear drawers and filing cabinets crammed full of personal data.

What if somebody builds such a security system for the terrorists to use? What if a house can become impossible to open without destroying all of the evidence? Wouldn't that be a huge advantage for criminals? Wouldn't that be less safe for the rest of us? Wouldn't we demand that the builder provide a means of entering when presented with a search warrant? I think certainly so.

Tim Cook has no right to stand in the way of a constitutionally valid, legal search warrant. This is not his decision to make. It may be inconvenient, even expensive for Apple to fix this, but they can afford it, and they are currently, by their technical design, obstructing justice. That is a big miscalculation. What we as a society cannot afford is to establish protocols which put criminals out of the reach of the law.