The Civil War On Liberty

Apple has refused the FBI access to the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Donald Trump has called for a boycott of the brand. Matt Gillow asks: who’s right? Apple or the FBI?


Picture the scene: five men in a dark room flicking through your 12-year-old Facebook statuses (Photo: Business Computing World)

Picture the scene: five men in a dark room flicking through your 12-year-old Facebook statuses (Photo: Business Computing World)

It’s an argument that seems to keep cropping up from one generation to the next – should governments really have the ability to access the private files of their citizens? Various MI5 and MI6 heads have clamoured for greater, further-reaching surveillance programmes, and Theresa May’s “Snooper’s Charter” was arguably the most divisive piece of legislation in government during the coalition years.

Now world news is dominated by the FBI and Apple going to court to dispute, essentially, the very same principles. Apple believe that FBI demands for them to produce software allowing the government to access iPhone date are a violation of privacy – and they’re right.

The crux of the issue is that the FBI want to hack into the iPhone of the San Bernardino terrorist, which is almost irrelevant in the wider scheme of things. By producing software allowing the US government to access private files, Apple would not only be entirely undermining their own recent improvements that protect their customers privacy and rights, but setting a dangerous precedent for governments internationally. Which is not even to mention the tremendous costs that would be incurred; it would cost Apple $101,000 in manual labour to hack one phone.

It is, in essence, a basic argument: everybody should be allowed the right to privacy, and to have a life away from the prying eyes of government. What exactly the FBI believes they will achieve from accessing iPhone files is unclear – are the secret services really that intrigued by Syed Farooq’s Snapchat best friends?

Free Speech: terms and conditions apply. (Photo: Libertarian Republic)

Free Speech: terms and conditions apply. (Photo: Libertarian Republic)

The argument for increased surveillance is really pretty weak – that “I have nothing to hide from the government.” The idea that some random middle-aged man would technically have access to your files is very much the same as having a government-funded webcam placed in your shower – we all crave physical privacy, and the encroachment of that privacy is a terrible crime. Why then, is the violation of our mental privacy seen as such a minor issue, rather than the attack on civil liberties and freedom of speech that it really is?

Rather, Apple in fact are admirably standing up for the millions of customers they have worldwide, instead of bending to the will of the government. Is it really worth placing incriminating software in the hands of the government, and by extension, terrorist hackers (the US government already fends off thousands of cyber-attacks per day) just on the off-chance that the software will give insight into the life of a now-dead, potentially rogue madman?

The cyber assault on human rights (Photo: BGR)

The cyber assault on human rights (Photo: BGR)

Millions of people take civil and human rights very seriously. Groups such as Liberty have been set up with the sole intention of defending those rights. One of the key campaigns put forward for national attention by Liberal Youth recently was the maintaining of the right to privacy and free speech. American voters are flocking to the #VoteTrump campaign because of his stance against refugees, in essence because of fears that refugees will steal jobs and benefits, but are content with the government attacking their privacy? The recent social media backlash over student walkouts (such as when students staged a walkout to protest Katie Hopkins speech at Brunel University) and the petition and subsequent Westminster Hall debate which considered banning Donald Trump from the UK shows a readiness to defend civil liberties, but why are millions so quick to defend their right to free speech, but so rarely and quietly stand up against government intervention into their private lives?

So yes, Apple are right to stand up to the government. In a week where the British government is trying once more to force through Theresa May’s “Snoopers Charter,” to meekly submit would not only nullify the promise they have made to protect their customers, but give the government the green light to demand more and more powers of surveillance. Instead of stepping back and believing that greater surveillance doesn’t encroach on their human rights, Americans should be grateful that in a world where major companies are often found to be tax evading, someone has finally decided to take a stand against the government for something worthwhile.

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