It's a Lot More Than Privacy: The Apple/FBI Controversy

Gwen Ifill of the PBS News Hour concluded that this was a real test of privacy versus security during a recent conversation about Apple Computers' decision to reject a federal court order to unlock a cell phone used by Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino attackers. No, said Nate Cardozo of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "This is about security versus surveillance."

The News Hour conversation ended, but the issues raised by Ms. Ifill's characterization of the controversy is enormous.

Unfortunately, this is not unlike most reports. The next day, the New York Times reported that according to Alex Abdo, staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberty Union's privacy and technology section, "Apple deserves praise" for its decision; and, as pointed out by the Times, "Privacy advocates and others said they worried that if the F.B.I. succeeded in getting access to the software overriding Apple's encryption, it would create easy access for the government in many future investigations."

But is this so much about privacy as it is about all the rights we think we have under the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which provides citizens are "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures"?

There is no doubt that loss of personal privacy in the age of "Big Data," where marketers collect rearms of personal information from Facebook, Twitter, shopping web sites and even email to target potential buyers, is a huge concern. Hackers, who steal millions of social security numbers from banks, credit card numbers from retail chains and other personal information from insurance companies, is also most troubling.

But governments around the world also want to use surveillance to find dissenters to sitting governments, oust those whose religious belief system may not be popular or allowed, or simply to contain potential -- often unfounded -- protest. Government's interest in data -- in information of all kinds -- is well known.

Just a few years ago, according to the ACLU, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy conceded that it may have violated federal privacy guidelines by using devices used by a data collection firm called DoubleClick to monitor traffic on its Internet sites for children and parents. The White House office which operates two anti-drug Web sites, one for children and another for parents, was spending over $130 million to advertise anti-drug use, with $12 million designated to direct users to Internet sites. But when users click to reach the Drug Control office, cookies are installed. The office also made deals with search engines so that computer users who searched the Internet using key words and phrases like "pot" or "weed," would automatically receive anti-drug advertisements on their computer screens and be invited to the Drug Control Web sites.

However well intentioned, this example is but one in a long history of abuses by government to track citizens' behaviors. According to the ACLU and other libertarian groups, there are still significant flaws in the Patriot Act that threaten fundamental freedoms by giving the government the power -- without probable cause -- to access medical records, tax records, information about the books you buy or borrow and the power to break into your home and conduct secret searches without telling you for weeks, months or indefinitely.

There is no doubt that the privacy rights of our citizens have taken a back seat to the fight against terror. The fight against terror justifies such powers, it has been argued, although the executive duty to seek court approval -- before or within 72 hours after wiretaps for example -- has only been recently resolved. Or so it has been said.

The House and Senate were right to extend the act. But must we wait four more years to determine the effectiveness of the acts various provisions? The threat of terrorism notwithstanding, the threat of government abuse is very real and growing.

As we rush headlong into a new but uncertain age, it is becoming increasingly clear that in our zeal to promote the marvels of the Internet, we may be seriously eroding the fundamental rights of the average citizen and consumer. Freedoms that Americans have so long cherished and expected are being undermined everyday not only by both Internet entrepreneurs and global corporations, but also sadly by our own government.

At stake are much more than merely occasional abuses of our more traditional concept of privacy, i.e. the right to protect confidential personal information from disclosure. Rather our more fundamental, constitutional right to be left alone -- the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness without unwarranted scrutiny, physical or electronic invasion, is being assaulted by the proliferation of surreptitious data gathering on the Internet.

It would be ironic and sad if the same Constitution, which created a free press and a free enterprise system enabling the robust knowledge economy, we now admire, was somehow responsible for the massive loss of personal privacy and the loss of all our freedoms. This debate over the back door -- whether called a privacy or a security issue -- represents a potential demise of the fundamental freedoms of our democratic society.