Apple vs. the FBI: Who Should Win?

The fight between Apple and the FBI has become personal. Tim Cook’s interviews and Director Comey’s remarks to Congress each try to convince the public that they’re right. Like two cousins at a family reunion trying to convince Grandpa Dorfl that the other is a prick and shouldn’t get any of the inheritance.

It all started because law enforcement wants to gain access to an iPhone owned by the San Bernardino shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook. Unfortunately, there is a security feature on the phone, which would wipe all the data after a limited number of failed passcode attempts. And so, the FBI has used the All Writs Act of 1789 (passed by the very first Congress to tackle electronic encryption. OF COURSE!) to compel Apple to “update” the operating system on that phone alone, so that the FBI can guess Farook’s passcode as many times as it wants, without losing the data.

Even though Apple has helped the FBI on several occasions to access customers’ personal information on their iCloud servers, they drew the line at altering the code of a physical phone. On February 16, 2016, Apple CEO, Tim Cook, penned an open letter making an argument directly to the public for why the FBI is wrong to ask Apple to help them unlock Farook’s phone, and on Tuesday, March 22nd, Apple and the FBI were going to go head-to-head in the Central District Court of California.

Aside from the legal arguments, the arguments in favor of security, and those in favor of freedom, there is also an argument to be made about societal expectations. This case has the potential to change the basic relationship between the United States Government and the people of the United States. Quite simply, I believe that it is in everyone’s best interests if Apple wins its fight against the FBI. Not because freedom should win over security, nor that this will set bad precedent (it will, and on a global scale no less), but because it would change the basic understanding of the relationship between law enforcement and the people it is supposed to protect.

The 4th Amendment of the Constitution protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure, and requires that warrants be issued only upon probable cause. Between surveillance with telescopic camera lens, wire-tapping, remote hacking, GPS tracking, and cameras on satellites, the protections of the 4th Amendment have been rather limited. For a long time now, the government has been able to find out an awful lot about an individual without the aid of a warrant. Law enforcement skirts the boundaries of the 4th Amendment, using laws such as the All Writs Act of 1789, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

In United States v. New York Telephone Co. the Supreme Court allowed a telephone company to be compelled by a court to assist law enforcement in installing a device onto a rotary phone to obtain its meta-data. Today the FBI wants Apple’s help in accessing a dead criminal’s phone. So the question is: Why is the United States v. Apple different from United States v. New York Telephone Co.?

Apple and the Department of Justice have teams of lawyers to hash out Supreme Court precedent, and nit-pick and argue the nuances of past legal opinions. That’s a realm of argument that almost exists in a world of its own (like particle physics if you’re not a lawyer). What should be obvious to us though is that today’s smartphone is significantly different from the rotary phone. Our phones hold more information about us, and more intimate information about us than “our persons, houses, papers, and effects.” It has photos, documents, even health information —

— Hold on a sec. I just found out the FBI told the court it doesn’t need Apple’s help

— I’m just going to continue, because this tug of war is destined to happen, and my point stands —

Our smart phones have become even more personal to us now, than even our own homes. Which is why they should be treated the same under the 4th Amendment.

Law enforcement has always been able to access our private lives with a warrant. However, they would still have to work at it. If documents are written in code, it has been up to law enforcement to break that code. If a home has a lock, it has been up to law enforcement to pick that lock. In short, the police have always been able invade our privacy, but they should have to work at it at least.

If the FBI were allowed to access our “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” with the forced assistance of private entities, then we will truly be heading towards a police state. Has anyone seen the comic/movie V for Vendetta?