*Beep, beep, beep* Your phone rings and you pick it up. Is it from a crush? A possible employer? Your mom? You angle your shiny iPhone covered with its mirror screen protector, designed to prevent prying eyes from detecting what you’re doing and who you’re talking to, out of view. But is a measly, thin piece of adhesive on your screen really doing anything to protect your privacy? Maybe from the nosey co-worker next to you, but does Apple have access to it? And should they allow the government to have that same access in special circumstances? Does what is referred to as “the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11” seem like a special enough circumstance (LA Times)?
Following a series of mass shootings, two assailants of Middle-Eastern background raided the Inland Regional Center in California, killing 14 people and wounding over 17 others in December 2015. The weapons that were used by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeed Malik, the two assailants, were obtained illegally and the FBI has reason to suspect that these attacks aren’t isolated and that there may be others involved. Of the three cell phones owned by the couple, only one was recovered intact. A four-digit lock code on this iPhone 5c would decide the fate of the information: it would be cracked and allow the FBI from to retrieve vital information to ensure the safety and containment of this situation or it would be erased forever after 10 wrong code attempts. Does Apple have a duty to develop a software to aid the FBI in the unlocking of their iPhones? Will it provide the best overall consequence? As technology becomes more and more essential in the daily lives of virtually every individual over the age of 12, let’s take a look at the stages, and correlating “privacy” levels, leading to the present day iPhones attached to everyone’s hand and delve into whether or not Apple should unlock this phone if it were behaving ethically under the school of Utilitarianism.
From Here to There
Back in the (arguably) good old days, the typewriter was created by Pellegrino Turri in 1808. It was used simply as a means of putting letters to paper in a mechanical fashion, little did we know that it would be the start of an invention used by practically every individual who could afford the few hundred-dollar price-tag. Whether its users knew it or not, the typewriter was essentially a keyboard that allowed individuals to type what they wanted and for maybe the last time, not have to worry about privacy because there was no transmission and more importantly, no storage, of data.
Fast forward 130 years and the first programmable computer is developed by German Konrad Zuse, whose invention most closely resembles a modern day computer. The transmission of data online through an intangible world via electricity was one of the first inventions of its kind.
Fast forward again 38 years and Steve Jobs and Steven Wozniak are dropping out of college to pursue their line of portable, or “friendly”, computers, known as Apple. Not only has it veered into its own path and created a new system of computing and separating the “Apple people” from the “PC people”, but it has also taken on a stance on digital privacy, a frontier that has limited regulations given its ever changing nature. As technology improves, so do computers. And does this mean that privacy is also diminishing? Although it was off to a rough start with Apple I, the launch of Apple II with its color graphics was very successful and made it a must-have by more consumers driving “company sales from 2500 units in 1977 to over 100000 in 1980” (Watson, 1).
From there, the first iPhone released on June 29th, 2007 and the questions that people were asking were about its functionality rather than its privacy measures. Every year or so Apple continues to release “newer” devices, accounting for their largest revenue generating product and time after time, there are lines of people waiting outside their stores for the release – is it because their privacy features have improved? No. It’s because everyone wants to be the first one with the newest Apple device. Everyone was infatuated with the sleekness and sophisticated air that the iPhones carried, but when did people start carrying about privacy? It’s in the back of our heads at all times that Uncle Sam is always watching, but is he also in monitoring our phones?
Up until the iOS 8 updated in 2014, Apple’s iPhone “iOS operating system provided ways for Apple and even law enforcement to access at least some contents on the phone, even if it was password-protected” (LA Times). Apple had a “master key” that would allow them to access the information on any given iPhone provided to them from proper authorities and would then send them back the information contained on it. So what made Apple decide to eliminate this feature on their phones? The company installed such a feature on their operating system during its beginning iPhone phases in the event that it was necessary to access their devices and it makes consumers and authorities question their motives behind removing it. Did Apple remove it to increase the sense of privacy that its customers would have while using their devices or merely as a way to get out of the hassle in dealing with FBI agents? The motives aren’t clear while both are plausible.
After an update earlier this year on February 1, 2016, Apple’s website now clearly states that it “has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a “backdoor” in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed any government access to our servers. And we never will.” Quite a bold statement for the company which does make someone wonder what Apple’s motives are. Is it really refusing to unlock a terrorist’s phone that could answer many unresolved, and potentially life-threatening, questions simply as a means of promoting their brand? Regardless of their motives, the FBI has discovered their own way of accessing the contents of the iPhone and the lawsuit between Apple and the FBI consisting of court orders and legal proceedings has been dropped, but the question does remain –does Apple have a duty to aid the government in violating a person’s privacy in the digital age in special circumstances where the overall result would benefit society as a whole?
Call of Duty… or of No Duty?
So what exactly is privacy? “Privacy simply allows for individual control over who knows information about them [and this is not to be confused with secrets which] are those things which are completely hidden from view and extend far beyond privacy” (Whitehouse, 312). In short, an individual is entitled to their privacy by being able to control the information about themselves that they choose to share with others. To this extent, it seems as though a deceased individual therefore does not have a right to privacy since they no longer have control over the amount of information that is released about them.
As the trend of people owning smartphones continues to increase in the U.S., the issue of privacy, or the increasing disregard thereof, is becoming more and more prevalent and as Apple is the largest valued companies in the world and primarily deals with technology, it is an issue that they are going to be very much engaged with. “UC Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said a carefully drafted federal law giving law enforcement the right to get around encryption in certain compelling situations probably would be constitutional “(LA Times). So what should Apple do? Is it ethical to help the government invade someone’s privacy if its justifiable? Is it unethical to refuse to do so?
According to consequentialism, “the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences” and this is applicable to the case of the San Bernardino terrorist phone-cracking case. Apple had a valid argument in refusing to unlock the iPhone for the FBI as they believe it will create a precedent that is dangerous to the privacy of the public in the future. On the other hand, the FBI insists on Apple aiding them in unlocking the terrorist’s cell phone to access pertinent information that could be a preventative measure to future attacks and the arrest of others who were involved in the mass shooting. So who’s argument is consistent with creating “the best overall consequences” (Haines, 2006)?
Apple’s argument for its refusal to comply with court orders granted to the FBI by judges is that it wants to protect the privacy of its customers and thinks that by creating an app that will help the FBI to unlock the phone, it will create a precedent for other governments to force them to do the same. Apple stands by their argument of protecting the consumer’s intangible privacy rights regardless of the situation. They claim that they “never will” create a backdoor into their phones that they sell to their customers, despite the fact that up until iOS 8 was released in 2014, that’s exactly what they were doing. While I applaud Apple’s commitment to helping its customers maintain as much of their privacy as they can, I do think that there are situations in which helping the FBI unlock and iPhone would create a better overall result than it can potentially by its refusal.
The FBI had a legal right, proven by its court order that was stipulated by Apple as a condition of aiding them, to have Apple create a way to unlock the cell phone recovered from the San Bernardino shootings. In this circumstance, the utilitarianism viewpoint would argue that Apple does indeed have a duty to act (help the FBI unlock the iPhone without destroying the information on it), because it will result in greater good than it would if Apple refused to. It is hard to measure the scopes comparing the loss of privacy to the future generations to the amount of lives that could potentially be lost in the future due to the lack of information that can be gathered present day, but there are some consequences that can outweigh the scope of the future.
To put things into perspective: the best overall consequence would be that everyone is alive because death is the ultimate consequence, it does not and cannot get worse. By unlocking the phone for the FBI, Apple’s customers might be subject to more privacy invasions by the government, but they will still have their life. If the San Bernardino terrorists were working in tandem with more individuals who are plotting more attacks as we speak, Apple’s inaction would result in the ultimate consequence – the death of more individuals which could have been prevented if Apple had agreed to cooperate with the FBI.
And so the fight continues…
With a continually increasing number of people owning cell phones in 2017, the issue of privacy is sure to be one that needs a resolution . This is “Especially [true] as the Internet and the Web now connect more than one-third of the world’s population, they thereby make possible cross-cultural encounters online at a scope, speed, and scale unimaginable even just a few decades ago” (Ess, 49). From the consequentialism viewpoint, Apple should definitely continue aiding the FBI in the unlocking of cell phones. This is especially true if the FBI is able to get a warrant form a judge who agrees that there is probably cause to gather information from an individual’s device. The end to the age of technology is not near as people are becoming smarter and more as computers, phones, and the internet are becoming more accessible and being used in different ways.
The issue of privacy is a touchy subject with some individuals believe that the government is constantly spying on its citizens and others who could not care less, the fact of the matter is that if people are not behaving illegally, there is no harm in the government having access to the information that we are storing and sending from our devices. The ability for the government to do so is merely a preventative measure in the event that there is a person(s) planning to attack other individuals. The ability for the government to be granted access into an individual’s device would then be the ultimate best consequence according to utilitarianism – saving the lives of every individual that it can.
Ess, Charles. Digital Media Ethics., 2014.