Privacy Matters [Update]

Even in a world where people go out of their way to share the most intimate details of their personal lives the idea of privacy is hotly debated. Let’s look at Facebook. Daily we share our oh so brilliant sounding epiphanies and pictures of the amazing bowl that was just devoured from Chipotle. The movies we watch, the music we listen to, the places we visit, even our political views, all end up on Facebook or Twitter. Don’t get crazy, yes, most of the salads we consume end up on Instagram but that is still an extension of Facebook.

Every year a new post comes around that says something along the lines of “Facebook is going to change its privacy preferences and if you don’t copy this word for word you will lose the rights to all the witty things you probably copied from Twitter and the picture of the sunset you posted on Instagram and blah, blah, blah!”. Even though it is nothing know and most semi-intelligent people know it’s not true it still gets posted and shared and creates a dialogue about how much privacy matters. Real talk, your kids aren’t that cute and your incites aren’t that insightful so Facebook isn’t going to steal them and use them to make gazillions of dollars. Probably.

The issue is privacy and our inherent need for it or at least the opportunity to have it. Privacy and control go hand in hand and that can be seen in how the services and devices we use the most have strived to keep getting better and better in regards to keeping the things we want to be hidden that way.

On December 2nd, 2015, the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 took place in San Bernardino. 14 people were murdered in cold blood by a couple claiming ties to a radical militant Islamic group. No, the shooters names nor the group they pledged allegiance too will not be named in this article because, frankly, they don’t deserve to be. What will be mentioned is something they left behind. An iPhone. An encrypted iPhone that the FBI has yet to crack which leads us to privacy and today.

Yesterday, federal prosecutors told a judge that they couldn’t access the shooters phone because they didn’t have his passcode and that Apple wouldn’t help them crack it. The judge responded by asking Apple how much it would need, financially, to comply with this order. That price, simply put, is your privacy. Since 2014 Apple has provided encryption by default on all its phones. If you don’t know the password, you can’t access the information.

On the surface this seems like a “duh” for Apple. These murderers chose their fate and the secrets on that phone could help thwart other attacks. They gave up their right to privacy when they chose violence, right? They did give up their right to privacy but they didn’t give up ours. The secret groups tasked with protecting our freedoms have a terrible track record of being given an inch and taking 10,000 miles. Yes, in the moment this seems right but where will it end?

What the FBI is asking for is a powerful tool that could decrypt the shooters phone. Just the shooters phone. Wait, just the shooters phone? How hard would it be to recalibrate this tool to circumvent the security on others phones?

This may seem a little extreme but the way we use smart phones is on a scale incomparable to anything that came before them. From personal moments captured in pictures and videos to personal info like passwords and bank accounts the small, powerful computers that live on our pockets are more telling than we probably even know. We trust these devices with every aspect of our lives and that trust is predicated on to idea that they are safe and trustworthy.

The events of December 2nd were disgusting and truly saddening. Those that lost their lives and the people left behind deserve justice but not at the potential cost of individual privacy long term. That last sentence was incredibly difficult to write. I live a stones throw from where these atrocious acts took place and personally know people who were in that building only minutes before the attacks took place. That day was real for me and will forever be etched in my memory in a way that I wish it wasn’t. It bothers me that their is still an 18-minute window in the killer’s day that can’t be explained yet and as much as I want that information to be known and understood I don’t want it to come in the form of what seems like a quick fix that eventually leads to people’s personal liberties being trampled upon.

This decision is far from final. Apple has five days to respond and will most likely file an appeal. Where does that leave us? In the grey. As much as situations like this seem black and white the waters are often more muddied than originally seen. In a perfect world, Apple could give the FBI what it wants, a way to bypass the phones “self-destruct” on all its contained information when the wrong password is entered more than 10 times. In a perfect world, that run on sentence would not be a writing monstrosity and the FBI would never use that software again. It isn’t a perfect world though. Even though I believe the FBI means well in its attempts to access this phone information that kind of power is too hard to just use once.

If you go through your phone right now you will find something that can be held against you. Maybe it’s a random screenshot. Maybe it’s an iMessage with a close friend where you joke in a way only you and your friend understand it’s a joke. Maybe it’s a friend on Facebook or Twitter who has affiliations with a group that you know nothing about but could be used against you by someone meaning well.

Privacy matters. As technology evolves, the ways it’s used in criminal matters will also evolve. In the same accord, those tasked with protecting us must adapt and grow as well. As difficult as that is going to be, it can never come at the cost of our personal security and privacy.

This is just the beginning; it’s going to be an interesting ride.

Update:

Today Apple released a letter to its customers:

This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake.

Give the letter a read and think about what this means for you and those around you.