Domestic terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone represents the latest symbol for determining the limits of governmental overreach in America. Made dizzyingly complex with today’s electronics, this issue is necessarily complicated, nuanced and fraught with exceptions, depending very strongly on who owns what and even the definition of where “here” is.
As usual, the “fine-print” defines the horns of this dilemma. For example, who actually owns the phone? Can the customer “own” the phone but only “lease” the software that operates the phone? This question needs a definitive answer and leads to the next logical inquiry; who owns the data created from the phone? If that data remains physically in the phone on a data card, is this a different form of ownership than say the same data being stored in “the cloud”, which is a space owned by someone else. When data is shared via text, do both parties own all of the data or do they retain only their portion of it? Alternatively, perhaps neither owns any of it because of the wording of the contract that defines the relationship of the subscriber to the phone company. What expectation of privacy exists when we use public networks, hot-spots, and all other forms of tracking and analyzing data built into devices or in many cases inadvertently downloaded within some application we did not intent to utilize?
Provocation and righteousness must not cloud our eyes to the precious rights protected by our Constitution. The fact that this issue involves a universally hated “bad-guy”, should in no way distract us from the fundamental questions about the legality of the government forcing a company to perform a service against its will upon the threat of sanction, fine or even imprisonment. Because the phone belonged to a mass murderer and apparent radical Islam adherent and sympathizer may tempt some to quickly conclude that all of the data is up for grabs but that is wrong. What if the phone was yours?
Law enforcement officials initially responsible for gathering information from Farook’s phone mistakenly caused that data to be lost or at least made more difficult to retrieve. Now that same government has found a federal judge that has issued an order to force Apple to perform a service they assert will harm their customers and compromise every user’s privacy.
Governmental agencies all across the US are today gathering massive amounts of cell phone information, indiscriminately and without a warrant, in the total absence of any judicial oversight. Using IMSI catcher devices or “Sting-Rays”, agencies are drunk with this new power, increasingly utilizing high-tech invasions of our privacy in the name of safety.
Farook was a terrorist but our own government is increasingly ramping up the use of terrorist like tools and threats, behind the veil of making us safer, effectively weaponizing people’s fears.
Benjamin Franklin would be shocked more by cell phone technology than he was from his famous kite, however his words from the 18th century ring true today, “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither,” and that is where we are headed.