The argument for the right to privacy has failed to become fully substantial, but a single defining moment will determine to what extent it ever will
Privacy has roots originating from many years before the predicament it finds itself in now with the establishment of the digital age. Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, was arguably one of the first to recognise a distinction between the privacy realm (Oikos), which consisted of strictly internal family matters, and the public realm (Polis), which indicated political activity. Essentially he believed that the government should not intrude upon matters considered to be private and, rather, should focus on matters belonging to the realm of political activity, to ensure that it acted as an authority figure as opposed to a self-regulating body, helping to form the idea of privacy many identify with today.
Though even these distinctions and ideas have not brought much clarity to aid the current debate. The battle between privacy and surveillance consists of complex arguments which have made it difficult to come to a consensus on the issue. It has been this way ever since Edward Snowden, a former CIA agent, revealed the secret snooping operations being conducted by the NSA, which exposed them spying on citizens across the globe, unlawfully according to some, in the name of national security. Consequently the desire for privacy, fuelled by a sense of uncomfortableness around the idea of the state looking through personal data has created a deep divide between the government and the private sector on the issue.
It is that divide which has caused such difficult and sticky debate. Neither side has been able to present a compelling argument to support their case, which has resulted in both sides constantly cancelling each other out without any progress being made towards a reasonable solution. However, a defining moment has arrived, which may be able to settle the debate by producing a significant precedent for the foreseeable future.
On the February 17th, Apple, which has always advocated for greater privacy and protection from an overreaching state, stuck to its ideals as it dismissed the FBI’s request to break into an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters from last year, to aid a terrorist investigation. The tech giant was swift in confirming to consumers the company’s commitment to not abandon their principles. It posted a customer letter on its website soon after the story had become widespread, in which it explained the situation, its decision and rationale. The centrepiece of the letter consisted of two momentous implications which would shape a significant template to determine the fate of future cases with similar circumstances; the threat to cybersecurity and the prospect of creating what Apple called a “dangerous” precedent to justify governments breaking into the devices of criminal suspects without sufficient oversight or legal justification.
The chief executive of Apple, Tim Cook, has thus far stood firmly by this move. The reaction by the media, lawyers, security officials, privacy advocates and a range of other stakeholders, have expressed varied opinions. Those who oppose Tim’s decision judge it as a purely routine commercially driven approach-simply in favour of maintaining strong brand loyalty by displaying a determined commitment to ensuring the protection of consumer privacy, and therefore safeguarding short-term profits-an understandable prejudice when appreciating the standpoint of many politicians and security agencies who continue to be frustrated by the lack of control and consensus they have when it comes to companies that favour strong data protection measures. Contrastingly there are also those who favour the chief executive, arguing that compromising the security mechanisms of one device would inevitably result in the vulnerability of other iPhone users.
There have also been those who have expressed a view which conveys that it is not exactly backdoor access which the FBI wants, but just to be able to access the data in this specific case, therefore not endangering other users. Bill Gates, co-founder and former chief executive of Microsoft, is one of those, arguing that handing over information to aid this terrorist investigation would not set a wider precedent.
Yet, the argument that a wider precedent would not come at the end of such a tense conflict is flawed. This is a situation which policy makers, politicians, and lawyers have anticipated would happen ever since the Snowden revelations. The significance of this case is that it consists of a company, in this case Apple-who has been asked to hack into, or, at least, manipulate the security mechanisms of, one of its devices-which uses the strongest of cryptography to adequately protect its users and, therefore, fail to comply with law enforcement. However, if a federal bureaucracy is able to obtain data despite this obstacle, then, of course, it may provide as a future template for other similar scenarios.
With that, Tim Cook has now become the Aristotle of the digital age; a 21st century privacy martyr who has presented a difficult discussion as to whether companies should obey to governmental incentives designed to bolster security in an unforgivingly dangerous world, or to remain stubborn and strictly follow the ideals which have forever been conventional wisdom among Silicon Valley and tech firms as a whole. The externality of such a decision is one which will determine the fate of privacy and security in cyberspace. If Tim is able to achieve the former, it will continue, but also strengthen and possibly fully substantialise, the argument for the right to privacy by displaying the unnecessary risks taken in weakening encryption and other security measures to access data. If the latter prevails, however, the right to privacy will only have legitimacy in a much smaller range of circumstances than it may currently do, and may well give prosecutors the legal upper-hand in future scenarios if this conflict of interests were to come up again.
Overall the fate of digital privacy lies in the outcome of the FBI and Apple. Their tussle will by no means be the end of the debate, but it will most definitely produce a very significant shift and determine the future of it. The result will spur on numerous other court cases dealing with the issue, but an important precedent will be in place. And so Tim Cook has put the idea of privacy in the digital age in a precarious position, and with that the world will watch carefully with bated breath.