The Ethics of Encryption

Emotions can be powerful, often times obstructing logical and rational decision-making. When our emotions are intensely involved in a situation, we may be quick to jump to conclusions without fully considering the long-term implications of our actions. Making these considerations and limiting emotional subjectivity is the essence of ethical decision-making; as rational and innately conscious beings, we are subject to this ethical judgment, even in the realm of business. It is unrealistic to assume that a moral and ethical individual would forgo his natural conscience and morality when making business decisions. A contemporary ethical issue, which shows the influence of emotion on decision-making, is evidenced by the ongoing battle between Apple and the FBI.

Some background information: the FBI is asking Apple to create a “backdoor” to hack into the iPhone of one of the deceased San Bernardino shooters. Many argue that the FBI is not requesting a backdoor to the entire IOS operating system and its encryption software, but just a way to hack into this one phone. Apple is contesting this judgment, maintaining that creating new software to hack into the phone could jeopardize the safety of their entire operating system and make it more vulnerable to hackers. The importance of this one phone, Apple argues, does not trump the safety and privacy of all other Apple devices. Apple’s defense case rests heavily on the Bill of Rights, most notably the 1st and 5th amendments. Additionally, Apple points out that the San Bernardino authorities inadvertently reset the cloud storage on the device in question and that the attackers reset the hard drive on their computer and reset their personal iPhones. The government is concerned with a work-issued phone. But if the suspects were meticulous enough to reset their other devices, wouldn’t they also have taken care of the work phone if it contained any sensitive information? Apparently, the FBI thinks not.

Why is the FBI so concerned with just this one particular iPhone? I would argue it is not so much they believe important information will be on the phone, but rather to establish the unsettling precedent that the government can force Apple to hack into its phones. It this is done with this one phone, what will stop the government from forcing Apple and other companies to hack into other devices? The FBI is leveraging emotion and fear against the American people, focusing on a phone that is associated with terrorism and Muslims. People are led to believe that Apple should comply with the FBI in the interest of national security, but fail to realize the long-term ramifications that this could have on data security and privacy. Essentially, the FBI wants Apple to reduce innovations it has made on encryptions software, arguing that this is making it easier for terrorists and other dangerous individuals to avoid detection. Another key point—if the US government can force Apple to get into a certain device, wont other governments demand the same authority?

Now, to the ethical analysis. From a consequentialist approach such as utilitarianism, it’s quite clear that the overall social impact of letting the government force Apple to unlock the phone could be severe. The benefits accrue to the government, while the negatives harm Apple, its broad user base, and possibly the privacy and security of other tech companies. It’s interesting to consider this from other perspectives that may not be so clear. Specifically, Kantianism, which focuses on duty and obligation. Is Apples primary obligation to their device users and shareholders or is it to the government? I would argue it is the former. Also, in considering Kant’s notion of the categorical imperative, If the American government forces companies to do these things, what would a world be like in which all governments were permitted to do this? The possibility that any government could forcible hack into technological devices seems quite threatening. If deontology is focused on universal laws and rules, then the protection of privacy should be equally provided to all, even terrorists. There is a reason this case is being so heavily played out in the media. The government sees the racism and fears of terrorism surrounding much of the presidential election campaign and is taking advantage of this emotional vulnerability as a way to bypass privacy and security.

What the FBI proclaims as being in the best interest of national security, could also have the complete reverse effect.

Links/ Sources:

John Mcafee thinks he can get into an iPhone





3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Encryption

  1. This topic was discussed in my other class as well, and the point was brought up that if this situation were taking place in the physical realm of the world (with a metal safe in someone’s house possibly containing important information to a crime), would we feel the same as we do now if the police came with a search warrant requesting the safe manufacturer to open it? Granted, there are aspects to these examples that aren’t as easily comparable, but there is an underlying commonality that made me think twice about the topic…


  2. As Jacob above me mentioned I think that within the realm of technology we are far more willing to give up our data, or at least not care as much if it was something physical that got taken from us. There is a tendency to think that data is secure, and we would like to think that it is. As you suggest in your post, this could cause a dangerous precedent to be set by the government. In the future it could cause Apple to have to give up other data, and I feel that this is a precedent that shouldn’t be set.


  3. I think Apple is right. Setting the precedent to break peoples privacy would a a dangerous thing to do. This is the way things go, the FBI starts doing this once or twice, and then all of sudden they do it all the time. There could be a snowball effect that would result in numerous issues in terms of data privacy.


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