On February 16, Apple CEO Tim Cook published an online letter to customers explaining the recent back-and-forth between the FBI and Apple and reiterating Apple’s very clear stance on the issue. Like many who depend on their mobile device to securely manage their data, Apple wants to remain a credible part of a person’s trust infrastructure and is adamantly opposed to any type of encryption backdoor.
Make no mistake, the decision by the Department of Justice to drop its case against Apple after the FBI claimed it gained access to the phone without the company’s help is not a victory for security. And it confirms what many Americans already believe in that the government doesn’t actually need the help of consumers or tech companies to access the data they’re after. In light of this recent development, what made Cook’s letter noteworthy and what makes it an example worth such a powerful rallying cry is the fact that it’s a direct appeal to the people.
Much of the debate between tech companies and the federal government happens in too remote a space from the average citizen. In the press, in committee hearings, on Capitol Hill — none of these may be “behind-closed-door” affairs, but they don’t engage the public openly, which allows for authorities like the FBI to throw around their authority or use specious legal interpretations of laws like the All Writs Act to bully private individuals or enterprises into relinquishing control of their data.
But Cook astutely informed and engaged the American people — telling them as clearly and directly as possible that the FBI’s argument for a backdoor neither helps national security nor protects the privacy of average citizens — a point that got a similar boost from the New York District Court, which ruled that the government’s request under the All Writs Act was “so broad as to be unconstitutional.” The American public has never been told the stakes in this fight so clearly or directly as they have now.
Here’s why that matters now
Cook’s letter and the legality of the FBI’s defunct request arrive at a crucial time in the privacy debate, and asks of every American the questions: Where do you stand on privacy and transparency? How open are you to letting the government own all that you do, create, share and think online? How open are you to letting a freely elected government dictate its “right to protect you” based on anything smelling like terrorism? Where does personal and communal privacy begin and end?
I don’t know any property more private than my own data and expressed thoughts, do you?
When you consider last year’s data breach at the Federal Office of Personnel Management that saw 22 million employee records compromised, is it really any surprise that according to Pew Research Center only 6 percent of adults in the U.S. say they are “very confident” that government agencies can keep their records private and secure, while 25 percent say they are “somewhat confident.”
According to the 2016 National Cyber Security Alliance Report, 92 percent of respondents said they are worried about their online privacy and 45 percent said they are more worried today than one year ago. We saw this reflected in the data from the Consumer Openness Index Report, a survey where the number of respondents who placed the responsibility of maintaining data privacy on themselves grew by 6 percent year-over-year — which aligns well with another Pew survey where 61 percent of respondents feel they “would like to do more,” while only 37 percent say they “already do enough.”
The FBI’s repeated proposition of public support for backdoor encryption is a mixed bag. A different survey from Pew showed that 51 percent of Americans support the FBI, while 38 percent support Apple and 11 percent said they do not know enough about the dispute to form an opinion. A poll from NBC News / The Wall Street Journal shows a nearly equal divide amongst Americans whether Apple should build a backdoor that would help the government access encrypted data.
What this means for the 2016 election
While it’s important to have champions of data privacy and encryption in the private sector, the fact remains that the policy making that safeguards digital rights in America is not going to come from Silicon Valley. It has to come from Washington, D.C. and the power of individuals votes.
America was founded on the right to own and control one’s private property.
This last point underscores the growing need for a true leader on encryption and data privacy — not just one who will champion these ideas as fundamental rights, but who will emphasize how the concerns and interests of the law enforcement and intelligence communities are not always serving in the interests of the public’s privacy.
Electing a privacy-minded leader
Whether you feel that Cook may have responded in too exaggerated of a fashion to the FBI’s request, or believe his concern — and that of additional reports — that that this is a slippery slope into undermining privacy regardless of the reason, the underlying point remains the same: A true leader in the digital era has to be one who takes the fight directly into the public arena. A leader who will make aware an all-too-often disinterested public of what’s at stake, and unites the concerns of the private sector with the policy-making abilities of the public sector to create a society that respects the needs of law enforcement without compromising the privacy of its citizens out of some blind devotion to those agencies.
The American people are more informed than ever before about data privacy, encryption and what’s at stake if either of these are infringed upon. Those same people are poised to vote for the first president in their country’s history who can take the concerns of Cook — and millions of equally mindful people whose privacy has been constantly trampled on — and make them law.
After all, America was founded on the right to own and control one’s private property, and I don’t know any property more private than my own data and expressed thoughts, do you?