Technology companies create a product to be used by the public. If that product can be monitored by law enforcement agencies in order to more easily build cases against criminal activity, should private companies like Apple and Google have to comply with the government by making data more accessible?
That question has been plaguing the country since Edward Snowden revealed the data collection practices of the NSA. In response to concerns about user privacy, companies such as Apple and Google have created devices with a beefed-up form of encryption. According to F.B.I. Director James B. Comey, however, the “post-Snowden pendulum” has swung “too far” in the wrong direction.
In a speech delivered at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., Comey discussed the government’s difficulties in maintaining the status quo of monitoring potential crime while weighing the importance of citizen privacy. According to the New York Times, Comey expressed his issues with new forms of encryption, which would make it more difficult to investigate confiscated devices or those recovered from crime scenes. The more traditional form of wiretapping — which made a seamless transition to the digital age — would essentially remain intact despite the new forms of encryption.
Technology may be used in some instances for crime, or for the discussion of criminal activity, but companies like Apple and Google design their devices with consumers first and foremost in mind. If consumers want a product that makes them feel more protected from spying agencies like the NSA or federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, they should have the freedom to make that decision. Tech companies, at the same time, should have the freedom to design products with the safety encryption methods they find best.
Federal agencies also need to realize that any easing in security would open the same threat of hacking or spying — which is what law enforcement monitoring is, at its core — to more malicious attackers. As a federal agency, it’s a difficult position to be in. If devices can’t be encrypted, they’re susceptible to outside attacks. If they are encrypted beyond the government’s capabilities, then they can’t be monitored.
Consumers should find comfort in the fact that, at least thus far, major tech companies have been firm in their opposition to government data collection practices. With tech giants like Google and Facebook verging on monopolistic, it could be dangerous if they were cowardly in the face of government pressure to share data. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s microblogging social media platform Twitter that’s led the charge against government oversight, filing a lawsuit against the Justice Department for refusing to let them share a completely transparent report on government data-collection practices with its user base. The national conversation about individual liberties, private technology and government surveillance, spurred on quickly by that post-Snowden pendulum, is one of the most important issues of our time. At least for now, tech companies appear to have the consumers’ best interests in mind. Theoretically, so does the government. But they need to work out some serious kinks in both policy and practice before they can be fully trusted again.