Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Privacy vs. Life and the “Dilemma” of Apple

The news is that the federal government has compelled Apple to break their inscription that ensures the privacy of Iphone users. Apple is refusing.

Which reminds me that civil disobedience isn’t what it used to be.

But I digress.

Who’s right? Apple or the government?

Let me pose a thought experiment: Let’s say that someone has kidnapped your child and hidden her somewhere. And let’s say that the police surrounded the kidnapper who, after a standoff, killed himself. The police break down the door and find only the kidnapper’s dead body and an Iphone that has been secured which the police have reason to believe contains data that reveal the whereabouts of your child. There is no one else that is suspected of having any information that could lead to your daughter. In the meantime, you don’t know if she is hurt, if she is being raped by accomplices, if she is unconscious and bleeding out. You don’t know anything, but the Iphone may have some clues.

Do you believe that Apple should refuse to provide a means to break the encryption?

If your answer “Yes, Apple should refuse,” I question your sanity; I question your humanity; I question your parenting skills and your heart.

What does it say about a person who would sacrifice the life of his or her own child in order to protect Iphone encryption?

I would suggest it says a lot, and none of it very good. In fact, if you believe that, I would keep it to yourself so no one else finds out how calloused you are towards life, particularly of your own family?

Strong words? Yes. So tell me why I am wrong. Explain to me why Iphone encryption is of greater importance than life.

In the current case, the phone belongs to one of the San Bernadino shooters who killed fourteen people and wounded twenty-two more. The phone could provide information as to other plans for mass murder, or provide information as to other people involved in terrorism plots.

Now, in case I have been too subtle, I will go ahead and put my cards right out on the table: I am of the mind that life is more important than privacy of an Iphone using criminal who is endangering the lives of others. I cannot think of a good reason that Apple should refuse provide to the government the means by which to break the encryption. I have seen a lot of handwringing and fearmongering about it. But rational arguments? I haven’t seen any of those yet. And I can’t imagine what rational argument there is.

The government has a long history of being to perform, with legal approval, reasonable searches and seizures. It was written right into the Constitution that all states agreed to to join the union. And it seems entirely reasonably (no pun intended) that such searches fit that category.

Such searches are reasonable, based on the facts as known at the time. They are not guarantees of success. They are not without danger.

Sure, a government might hatch a pretense of an argument that can unreasonably invade the privacy of its citizens. It already happens. It’s not new. It’s not good. But it’s rare.

I believe the use of such encryption breaking ability should be used as it is in any other investigation—with a demonstrable probable cause approved by a dispassionate judge and a limited scope of searching. It’s not a ticket to an open-ended fishing expedition.

Those who say that Apple should refuse may be endangering the lives of others. Notice, I said “may be.”

Let’s pose another thought experiment: Let’s say that, God forbid, there is another terrorist attack which kills a dozen or so people, and wounds another two dozen. In the aftermath, it is discovered that the new terrorists had connections to the San Bernadino shooters, connections that would have have been uncovered with access to the Iphone. Such access would have provided information that could have stopped the shootings.

Does that change your mind?

What if one of those dozen fatalities is your spouse? Or your parent? Or your child? Or your neighbor?

Does that change your mind?

It shouldn’t take a close friend dying to make us think about this.

If we are pro-life, then let’s be pro-life all the way. Let’s not be pro-life after we are pro-privacy. That was the basis of Roe v. Wade—that a right to privacy supercedes whatever life may be extinguished in the meantime. In other words, your privacy with your doctor was more important than your child.

And that’s why the initial thought experiment is not far off from reality. It’s just an Iphone instead of a doctor.

I understand privacy concerns. I am not wild about the government, or anyone else for that matter, rifling through my phone or my computer. I would be mortified for people in authority to find out how boring my life actually is. I would prefer to keep the sad state of my existence to myself.

But frankly, I find the right to life more important.

Ben Franklin is reported to have said that those who give up freedom for security deserve neither. It may be that that those who refuse to give up some freedom for some security shall soon have neither.

I think many Christians—evangelical, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians—have bought into the God of America. That our constitution is sacrosanct, and that our rights to certain things go hand in hand with the Bible, and may, in fact, go ahead of the Bible.

America isn’t God’s chosen people. And the Constitution didn’t come by divine inspiration.

Yes, the government may one day decide to outlaw Christianity. But if it take a violation of my privacy to find me guilty, I have bigger problems than constitutional ones.

My friends, let me urge us to take life seriously. If we are going to be pro-life, let’s be pro-life even it means giving up something else.


Michael Riley said...


If you have the time/inclination, I'd be interested in whether you'd have the same opinion on something like this:

Short version: it is an airplane based security camera that can keep watch over a whole city, so that if a crime is committed, the criminal could be tracked from the crime scene to his current location.

Of course, it is also tracking every other innocent person simultaneously.

For me, this is the issue with the iPhone case. If this were a one-off request, as the White House claims, it is less of an issue. If, however, the FBI would like access to a perpetual backdoor that gives them entry to any phone as they wish, I am much less sanguine. In my estimation, the consolidation of such immense power/access in the a single entity is too dangerous, even if there would be cases in which it could be helpful.

Larry said...

I am not particularly troubled by such a camera, at least in principle. When a person is in public, a person is in public. We have no reasonable right to privacy in public. Which is not to say I am in favor of it. I think the cost of it is prohibitive with respect to the benefit of it.

In this case, the FBI would not have an unfettered back door, and it wouldn't be (or shouldn't be) consolidated in a single power. It would still have to go through a court process to obtain a search warrant.

My main argument is over the relationship between a right to privacy and a right to life.

Michael Riley said...

By the way, I understand that by entering this conversation, I'm implicitly asking you to question my sanity and parenting skills. I'm hoping that I can make my points without creating greater doubts about me. :)

On the camera (and then I'll drop it, as it isn't the point of your post): it would be watching you even when you are not in public, assuming that there is some reasonable expectation of privacy (for instance) in your own backyard.

I do think that the question of whether this is a back door is an important one, and I'm not entirely sure whose word is good on this point. In my estimation, the government has already shown its tendency to overreach its boundaries in the Snowden leaks.

At least one article that I read noted that China is watching this case closely, to see whether it would be able to force Apple to give it similar access to encrypted devices (

Clearly, the San Bernardino case is a particularly sharp one, because there are (obviously) good and defensible grounds for getting access in this case. Whether the government ought to be able to conscript a private company into its service is a slightly different matter, but again, I see your point.

Just to press the argument: is there a point at which you believe that you can rationally stop a reductio on your argument? If there is the potential to save a life using some means that would trump concerns of privacy, does life always win? I'm thinking of crazy stuff, like everyone being required to wear a tracking device at all times. It seems to me that such measures would be useful in preserving life; should they be pursued? Or, similarly, if they are proposed, do we have an obligation not to object?

Larry said...

I question your sanity but for reasons entirely disconnected from this. By the way, I saw your video of your son. I think mickelson learned to play from his dad who was right handed by standing opposite of him and facing him. Having a lefty might be your ticket to the good life.

My back yard is public to at least some degree. I know that neighbors and people in the ballfield can see everything that goes on. It is only semi-private.

Back to the drone, it is not limited in its usage. It is an open ended just in case thing. I don't know how it is substantively different than a police officer walking the beat aside from the area that can be covered. But I am not in favor of a general tracking.

Which goes to the last question. Is there a reason? Would a reasonable person with the facts conclude there is something to be concerned about? Of course I am not sure there are any reasonable people aside from me and you (and I have my doubts about you sometimes). The argument about preserving life would indicate that life is in danger. If there is no reasonable suspicion that life is in danger, then there is no basis for action. In both scenarios above, there is reasonable suspicion of danger.

Michael Riley said...

On further thought, allow me to modify my last thought experiment.

Because of the way in which a modern smartphone is used, it seems to me that a closer metaphor to government access to a phone, on demand (with warranted suspicion), would be (almost) akin to having a device installed in my home that records all conversations, to which the government demands access. Obviously, this is an imperfect analogy; for most (sane) people, not every word they communicate is done by phone. For some, however, it is close.

The other challenge with this analogy, of course, is that possession of the recording device in the home is, in some measure, voluntary (as is ownership of a cell phone). Some might object that having a cell phone is a necessity. If it were truly a necessity to have such a device that records so much personal data, giving the government the keys to it would be dicey. But perhaps the same cannot be said if we have voluntarily acquired such a device. So consider this a hedge in my current position.

Granted that the scale of access, and the intrusiveness of the access, is significant, the question for me really does go back to the scope of access (whether this is a one-time event, or the creation of an accessible back door). But if Apple (and I'm no fan of Apple products) creates the ability to circumvent encryption, someone has that access (even if it is not the government). Even if the government needs a warrant, and thus private citizens are protected, the private company having such access remains a concern.

I'm not coming to any firm conclusions here, but I still object to the construction "issues of life always and in every way trump issues of privacy."