The recent flare up between Apple and the US government over security access to iPhones has once again highlighted the fractious relationship between politics and technology.
The privacy vs security debate thrown wide open once more by the FBI’s request for Apple to help tap into an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters is the most recent high-profile, publicly played-out example of government attempting to wrestle control away from consumer technology.
Apple CEO Tim Cook is publicly resisting requests to assist the FBI in their investigation into the San Bernardino shootings, claiming that it is an abuse of power by the US government and puts Apple, one of several large technology companies relentlessly scrutinized for data breaches, in an uncomfortable moral straight-jacket.
BlackBerry vs Gulf States
Back in 2010, BlackBerry faced ire from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who took umbrage with the device’s robust security features. The now embattled company must have felt the cruel irony in the idea that their handsets were being criticised for perhaps the only feature which put them ahead of Apple and Samsung. BlackBerry lost the stand-off with the Gulf States after resisting calls for easier access to their devices and were swiftly put in their place by a blanket shutdown of their e-mail, messaging and web browsing services.
Modern technology has a knack for throwing up moral predicaments which divide opinion and stir feeling: freedom of speech vs censorship, file-sharing & copyright, and the age-long debate over privacy of information. The rapid advance of technology has intensified the debate and has led in most cases to people staunchly defending greater liberality and the rights of the individual.
As in this recent case of Apple resisting the FBI’s data requests, these big moral questions often form in the aftermath of terrible news. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris led to calls in France for greater police powers to track individuals’ movements and communications. The UK is still having the very same debate after the terror attacks of 7/7, and at times it feels like the only element preventing this assault on privacy is the public’s fury over the News of the World phone hacking scandal. These events almost act as a counter-argument against the other.
A troubling precedent
Many believe that Apple’s reluctance to budge on this issue is part of a wider concern about its future in more state-controlled countries like China, a market it has been trying to crack for some time now. Cook and co will be all too aware how any decision in Washington will reverberate around the world and be picked up in Beijing and its state capitalist system, which would surely engulf any consumer privacy or data protection sentiments.
The rapid advance of technology and the inevitable march towards greater state surveillance may mean that for all Apple’s good intentions and thinking differently, in the end they’ll do exactly as they’re told.