Wednesday, March 2, 2016


For a while now, there has been a tug-of-war raging between Apple and the US Government. In the wake of the San Bernadino attack, more people have questioned why the government was not able to intercept the communications of the terrorists; and thus prevent the attack. After the terrorists were killed, a phone belonging to one of them, was confiscated by security operatives. But so far, the FBI has been unable to access the data on the device because of a user-generated password which they have been unable to crack. Because the data on the device is encrypted, it is programmed to automatically delete itself upon 10 failed password attempts. A court has ordered Apple to enable access; but so far, it has refused. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, states that obeying the judge’s orders would compromise user security/privacy and enable large scale hacking; as Apple would be required to create a new Operating System that would essentially give security operatives a back door access to bypass the user-generated password. Those who stand with the FBI- such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates- chide Apple for “misleading” the public and whipping up consumer skepticism (about the government's intentions). According to Gates, the government has the authority to ask for certain communications records from tech companies; as they would, from phone companies also. But even as the families of the 14 victims cry out against Apple, Google’s new CEO, Sundar Pichai, has come out in support of Apple; stating that “we build secure products to keep your information safe, and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices and data. Could be a troubling precedent…” The various arguments made by the US Government and by Apple, have again raised the all-important question of: Security vs. Privacy- which is more important?
In 2013, whistleblower and former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, exposed details of NSA communications surveillance over millions of Americans. He has since fled for Russia. Since Snowden’s revelations, it has been revealed that terrorists have now moved on to encrypted apps, to protect their communication. Now, these encrypted apps- such as Telegram- ensure that vital information from terrorists cannot be accessed by the NSA (and other inter-governmental spy agencies) even when they are intercepted. And this essentially means that more terrorist attacks can be planned and executed without fear of government sabotage, due to data-protection by the use of encryption! Scary thought indeed! It should be noted that these apps are not just used by terrorists, but also by journalists, activists, and other individuals.
Since 9-11, the human race has felt completely exposed and vulnerable to terrorist attacks. And in the face of ever-increasing insecurity, we have been forced to squarely address the issue of what we would rather have- security or privacy! Now, for most law-abiding citizens, we contend that we have nothing to hide. That we would much rather accept some intrusion of our privacy by the government, as long as it guarantees our security and safety. But then, how much is too much? The government does have a tendency to over-step its boundaries. After 9-11, the NSA violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), with White House authorization via an enforcement of “Presidential War Powers”, to engage in large-scale wiretapping of phone calls, without authorization from the courts. President Bush’s excuse was essentially that “tough times call for tough measures”. Now, while we accept that the vulnerability of the USA in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 did indeed demand the enactment of greater security measures, we also cannot ignore the fact that there was a disregard for judicial procedure!
Security and Privacy are both equal components of the “liberty spectrum”. We are entitled to both. But in a post 9-11 world, it seems like we cannot have both equally. And so in the light of this, we are more readily willing to give up some of our privacy. But the urge to “not end up dead”, certainly does not mean that we would rather have a “police society”! I would state here that even in the face of heightened insecurity, government surveillance must be sanctioned by the judiciary, and carried out within the ambits of the rule of law; and only after the government has pled its case and justified why such surveillance is necessary in the first place! This is how free societies function! But the issue is this- we just do not trust the government! We question its motives, and do not trust its judgments! And that is why increased government surveillance conjures up images of an “Orwellian society” and seems so scary…that is why we feel as though “Big Brother” is constantly looking over our shoulders!
Only the living can make demands for the condiments and niceties of liberty. But the urge to stay alive does not essentially give approval for the disregard of the rule of law…the rule of law which ought to apply equally in times of war, as they do at peace-time. I think I speak for a majority of the global populace when I say “we would much rather stay alive". We are willing to sacrifice a part of our privacy. But it would be disastrous if we do so without demanding caution on the part of our government(s). It would be disastrous if in our bid to stay alive, we give the government complete freedom to trample over law, and act with impunity; under the guise of “safeguarding our security”! If “we the people”, wherever we are- barring some autocratic states- essentially possess the power to elect and recall our own representatives, then we also have the power to render them accountable for their actions. We have the power to demand transparency…even in troubling times!
 And with that said, “Dear Apple tech’s, you are some of the most intelligent individuals in the world. Can you all find a way to assist the investigation; while also ensuring that you keep the NSA (and other spy agencies) within boundaries, and keep criminals away from these personal records?” “Please try. That’s all we ask. Thank you.”

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