Unlocking a Terrorist’s phone, right or wrong?

Most recently, a new round of debate heats up as Apple refused to deactivate the pass-protection feature on the IPhone previously owned by Syed Rizwan Farook, who, with his wife, murdered 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino California.


It was not the first time Apple clashed with the American Government over providing information on suspected criminals. However, what makes the San Bernardino Case stand out from other cases is that it involves a high-level terrorism investigation, which adds a new dimension to the debate — In the context of ongoing counter-terrorism efforts worldwide, can the fight against terrorism be offered as an overriding justification for privacy intrusion?


The argument for US government’s request of unlocking the terrorist’s phone is clear. Gaining access to his phone is critical in allowing FBI to identify whether he was connected to any terrorist organisation, which is, arguably, a crucial step to uncovering and even crushing a new terrorist group.


On the other hand, the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, presented a harsh critique, accusing the US Government of undermining liberty and freedom the government was duty-bound to protect. Interestingly, just like its opponent, Apple has also drawn upon the same idea of security, contending that creating a “back door” around Apple’s own encryption technology is equivalent to setting a dangerous precedent and putting millions of its users at risk.


It seems a bit confusing here but upon closer analysis, the fact that security can be used to defend opposing viewpoints drives home the idea of a delicate balance between security and privacy. The arguments put forward by US government and Apple revolve around the scenario when the delicate balance was unsettled and tipped towards either security or privacy. First, considering the motive, if the purpose of allowing authorities to have more access to encrypted data, as claimed by FBI, is to secure citizens’ safety, it would be facile to denounce its request in the interest of national security as undemocratic.


Yet, in reality, the boundary between what is perceived to be “an expedient move which is essential in ensuring security” and what is considered as “an overreach by the government” is never that clear-cut and often varies with the differing legislations of various countries. Moreover, a new question that may arise is that even if the request is well-intentioned, can the US government guarantee that all the information acquired through such means will be put into good use? In other words, the crux of the problem lies in whether the US government has the ability to ensure they will not abuse this power.


Nonetheless, amidst all the uncertainty and differing opinions, it is important to acknowledge that privacy should be given due consideration despite of the justification of “for the common good of the nation”. In essence, respect for privacy constitutes the trust between the government and the very people who give it the mandate to rule. The need to ensure that citizens’ legitimate expectations to privacy are adequately protected cannot be emphasized more, since it has been testified by so many past examples that the population’s faith and confidence in the incumbent government has always been the foundation for sustained stability, loss of which definitely jeopardises not only credibility of the government but more importantly, the very security the government has sought to ensure.


In view of burgeoning security threats across the world, coupled with the growing sophistication of encryption technology that has made it more difficult for authorities to obtain information, the lawsuit against Apple was merely a harbinger of a prolonged struggle between governments and technology firms. In the midst of safeguarding their countries from terrorism, it is advisable for governments not to lose sight of the social contract between they and the people they are bound to represent. Considering the nature of the San Bernardino case, it would be very hard for Apple to hold on its unyielding attitude and reject any chance of negotiation with the US government. Rather, what the Apple should work towards is to urge the US government to introduce relevant legislation to regulate legally-sanctioned intrusion to privacy and prevent any abuse of power.

By: Fang Ruilin, 5C35






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