The ongoing dispute between Apple and the Department of Justice over access to the contents of the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone has elicited convincing arguments on both sides.
Ultimately, the two entities need to come to an agreement that balances critical national security concerns with a respect for citizen privacy. And a critical part of such an agreement should be a commitment by Apple to work with the FBI in the case of unlocking the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone.
On Feb. 21, FBI Director James Comey wrote a blog post about the case, reports the New York Times.
“The particular legal issue is actually quite narrow," Comey wrote. "We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That’s it.”
Privacy advocates are naturally suspicious of Comey's statements, based in large part on the past conduct of the government. For example, rules constructed by U.S. courts in the 1960s and 1970s for the wiretapping of phone calls later became the basis for mass Internet surveillance.
The Justice Department is also reportedly seeking court orders to extract data from 12 different iPhones in cases unrelated to the San Bernardino shootings, none of which involve terrorism, according to Fast Company. This situation could not come at a worse time for the government to make privacy advocates' case stronger.
These points are valid, but also detract from the greater issue, which is that the San Bernardino shooting is an act of terrorism and it should be treated as such. Should we be wary of possible government overreach? Of course. Do we have a right to privacy and appropriate government boundaries? Sure. But should we then leverage these rights to hinder a federal investigation into a terrorist attack which took the lives of 14 people? Absolutely not.
Given a sample size of around 1,000 Americans, Pew Research Center found 51 percent side with the Justice Department against Apple and agree the phone should be unlocked.
They are joined in their support of this action by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who did not formally announce any kind of support for the government in the case, but argued, "I do believe that with the right safeguards, there are cases where the government, on our behalf -- like stopping terrorism, which could get worse in the future -- that is valuable."
So what is the right balance here?
The answer is that there needs to be a clearly defined, modern set of rules regarding privacy and encryption that intelligence agencies would be bound to follow, but it needs to operate on a case-by-case basis and allow for the "opening" of devices in the case of terror investigations.
So, Apple is wrong in refusing to unlock the shooter's phone, but that proclamation by itself belies what other agencies are doing to muddy the waters. There needs to be more transparency about what the government intends to do with information in unrelated cases, and in the longer term there needs to be a more codified, modern set of rules in place.