The other day the Financial Times reported that Apple wants to disable its own access to the iCloud, thus making it impossible for the company to comply with legal warrants for customer data. You could reframe this goal: America’s most valuable company is looking for technical fixes that will allow it to defy the elected politicians, law enforcement bodies and judges responsible for the nation’s security. If Apple does not like a law, it will invent some computer coding to circumvent it.
Tim Cook would probably not put it quite like that. Yet the Apple chief executive has elevated his fight with the Federal Bureau of Investigation over access to an iPhone belonging to one of the shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist outrage into a struggle between liberty and tyranny, privacy and intrusion.
Mr Cook says that to accede to the FBI’s request that Apple write a piece of code to permit access to data on the phone would be to create “the software equivalent of cancer”. Hundreds of millions of customers would be put at risk. “This is not about one phone,” he told ABC News, “this is about the future.”
A victory for the FBI would threaten “everyone’s civil liberties”. This is vaulting language from the chief executive of a company that, when all is said and done, is in the business of making luxury-end digital gadgets. Apple is innovative. Its products look nice. But civilisation would survive the absence of iPads and iPhones.
The FBI says that the San Bernardino case is sui generis. It is not asking Apple to hand over any coding and the company can destroy the code once the handset is accessed. Mr Cook’s motives, it suggests, are not entirely altruistic. In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, Apple has seen privacy and encryption as powerful marketing tools. Unfashionable as it may be post-Snowden, I tend to agree with the FBI that the natural tension between privacy and national security “should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff”.
Apple sets itself apart from the tech pack — Mr Cook often accuses the rest of harvesting and selling personal data — but on this issue the company has won the backing of most of Silicon Valley. Apple and Google have also been joined by Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft in lining up on the other side of the Atlantic against a planned British law to codify the state’s access to data.
As in the San Bernardino case, the companies say the UK government is seeking “back doors” into their technology that would undermine security for customers. They argue that the British law would set a precedent for authoritarian states. I am not sure that President Vladimir Putin has ever waited for Britain to take the lead before brushing aside personal freedoms and data privacy in the name of the Russian state.
It is perfectly proper and legitimate, of course, for Mr Cook to challenge the FBI in the US courts and there is nothing to say that technology companies should not lobby, like any business, against laws they do not like. He is right, also, that there is a vital debate to be had about the proper balance between personal privacy and collective security.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the pendulum probably swung too far in the direction of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. At the very least there was insufficient transparency about the extent to which governments had adapted to the digital age by accessing — then, incidentally, with the willing co-operation of Apple and others — personal communications and data. Tighter oversight was necessary.
Mr Snowden’s revelations risk shifting the balance too far in the opposite direction. Civil libertarians might say otherwise but the storage of metadata does not amount to digital mass surveillance. What matters are the conditions under which such data can be searched — the safeguards, legal authority and reporting responsibilities that militate against misuse of personal information while allowing the state to protect its citizens.
My guess is that there is no perfect balance and even if there was, it would probably be overtaken soon enough by newer technology. Intelligence agencies will always want too much access, while civil libertarians, and nowadays the tech companies, will stand at the other extreme. The best that politicians can do is update the frameworks and ensure that the courts have effective oversight.
Mr Cook seems to think Apple can stand above such a democratic process. If it loses the argument, it will find a way around the law. Apple is not alone. To listen to Google, Facebook and the rest is to hear corporations that have come to believe their own propaganda: as custodians of the digital future, theirs is a higher calling that should grant them immunity from the meddling of courts or the judgments of elected politicians.
The inflated sense of self-worth is not confined to the realm of privacy. It explains the indignation with which the companies greet demands that they pay a fair share of corporate tax. For Mr Cook it is the US government’s fault that Apple shelters tens of billions of dollars in offshore tax havens. Google seems genuinely shocked when British politicians take umbrage at the way it shuffles off to low-tax Ireland billions of dollars in profits made on its UK sales.
For all Mr Cook’s messianism, the tech giants are in business to make money. They have a valid point of view — just like everyone else. But, no, Silicon Valley does not inhabit a higher plane, and Apple’s profits should not trump democratic choices about security.
蒂姆?库克(Tim Cook)很可能不会这么说，然而这位苹果首席执行官已将他与美国联邦调查局(FBI)就解锁圣贝纳迪诺(San Bernardino)恐怖暴行中一名枪手的iPhone的争执，上升为自由和暴政、隐私和侵犯之争。