Archived Opinion

Apple or Uncle Sam? I don’t like my choices

op frWho you going to trust, Apple or Uncle Sam? By deciding not to obey a court order to unlock the iPhone phone of San Bernardino terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook, Apple says it’s taking a stand for privacy against government intrusion. The company insists breaching Farook’s iPhone security system would be tantamount to opening the floodgates and endangering the security of the data on millions of phones.

The government says it wants help in this particular case only and wants Apple to get the data so it can complete a thorough investigation and perhaps save lives. It says it will give Apple the phone and just ask that it provide the data. 

From a broader perspective, though, the truth this points to is perhaps even more disturbing, something out of one of those dystopian sci-fi books I read as a kid: the existence we’ve created with our use of ever-present mobile devices is not private, the data not secure. I always imagined this reality would emerge at some time in the not-so-distant future, a time where privacy was but a memory, where eyes were on us all the time. It seems that future is now, albeit not with literal eyes, but with access to our entire digital past and present.

Apple executives admit they could write a program to breach the security protocols on the phone — if they wanted. So what happens when they do want to, or when the government decides to silently “convince” the company to do just that, or when some rogue programmer figures it out (anyone remember Eric Snowden)?

So this is the future that I believe we will all live with: all texts, all calls, all emails, all web searches, all the photos we send to children, to friends and family members, are not protected, our purchases all known by all online retailers, our passwords into bank accounts and credit cards readily “hackable.”

We all know the feeling already, and even though I know it’s going to happen, it’s still a little creepy. I spend a few minutes searching for backpacks for my wife; for the last few weeks backpacks pop up every time I go online. I search online for camera lenses, and for months I am subjected to ads for all kinds of camera and electronic equipment. 

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One of the ironies that this case shines a light on is how much information the private companies already collect about each of us. Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google and others know a whole lot about who we are, what we’ve bought and where we’ve traveled, what we’ve read and what we’ve watched.

And so one can only wonder: is Apple taking a stand because it’s really concerned about privacy, or is it really all about profits? Is the real motive as honorable as Apple CEO Tim Cook would have us believe, or is it more about the bottom line?

Although I initially supported Apple’s reasoning, as the days have passed I’ve become less enamored of the company’s reasoning. I’m not in favor of tossing civil liberties to try and chase the terrorist bogeyman, but the FBI has taken the right approach — open discussion, in court, all information on the table. 

In this case Apple professes to wanting to play a role in an effort that it says should be led by Congress to determine where privacy and security intersect, to determine when agencies should get cooperation from corporations and when that information should remain private. Representatives from those other companies mentioned above and the government should all come together, Apple says, and work through these issues.

This case is likely to kickstart that effort, but in the end the overriding issue may come down to this: do we want private companies or the government exercising ultimate and final control on that digital self-portrait each of us is painting every time we pick up our phone?

Apple Inc. or the U.S. government? I’m not sure I like my choices.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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