Terrorism is a real threat and we all expect the government and law enforcement agencies to be vigilant in defending us against attacks. The effort to protect us from terrorism, however, can’t include surrendering the freedoms, rights, and privileges that we’re trying to defend. If the FBI prevails and Apple is forced to develop software to help access the iPhone, it’s a blow to freedom and privacy and a victory for the terrorists.
There is a battle being waged over an iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino shooting terrorists. While it’s easy to view this as an isolated incident—it’s just one request to help access one iPhone for a specific purpose—the reality is that it sets a dangerous precedent that will create a domino effect around the world.
Terrorism is scary. In fact, I would go a step farther and say that terrorism is irrationally scary. We shrug our shoulders and tacitly accept all kinds of unnecessary dangers that kill people every day, up to and including angry white people going on rampages like the Uber driver in Kalamazoo this week. We rationalize and justify, and quickly make excuses for why such events are unique or unpreventable, but as soon as an Islamic extremist kills someone people lose their minds.
That fear, however, does not trump the Constitution and it doesn’t give government intelligence organizations or law enforcement agencies license to ignore or circumvent the law. The FBI is playing on that fear to gain public sympathy in its battle with Apple over gaining access to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, but our fear of terrorism and our sympathy for the victims do not supersede the law.
Granted, the protection afforded by the Constitution of the United States is not absolute. You have the freedom to practice religion as you wish, but if your religion includes ritual murder you’re going to have issues. You have freedom of speech, but as we all know that doesn’t allow you to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. You have the right to keep and bear arms, but you’re not allowed to own hand grenades, land mines or shoulder-launched rockets. In other words, all of the rights spelled out in the Constitution have limits. They all have, or can, or will be debated and re-interpreted over time.
That said, to the extent those rights exist they are also absolute and applied without prejudice to society at large. Most of the country doesn’t agree with the beliefs or practices of the KKK, but the Constitution still protects that organization and its members and gives them the freedom to say and do whatever they choose within the confines of the law—no matter how abhorrent.
One problem with the precedent that will be set if a private company is compelled to actively work for the government against its own customers is that terrorism is often in the eye of the beholder. One person’s hero is another person’s villain. Once you start down the slippery slope of being selective in the application of the Constitution and the limits on government, you gamble that the people responsible for drawing the line in the sand are on your side.
What happens when power changes hands, or consensus shifts? How can we pick and choose how and when the government will demand access like it is now with Apple? Depending on your perspective, the Bundy family and the “patriots” who took control of the wildlife refuge in Oregon could be terrorists, or the Westboro Baptist Church could be terrorists, or the Black Lives Matter movement could be terrorists.
Read the full story on Forbes: FBI Battle With Apple Is A Pandora’s Box With Global Consequences.