The most recent battle over government access to personal information vs. the individual’s right to privacy didn’t have a clear winner.
In order to learn the contact information of one of the shooters in the San Bernardino, California terror attack of December 2015, the FBI wanted Apple to create a way for the security features of an iPhone to be defeated (including a way to input the unlock code electronically instead of only manually, to allow computers to speed things up). Apple refused and the case went to court, with the FBI claiming they were only interested in one phone, but of course a backdoor method to unlock one iPhone would make all of them vulnerable. Apple stood its ground. Then the FBI withdrew their case, announcing that a third party had helped them crack the phone.
Did they both win? Apple stuck to its principles and the FBI got the information it wanted.
No, I would suggest that we all lost. Again.
Governments now seem to have an insatiable appetite for the personal information of their citizens. They claim it’s all about keeping us safe from criminals and terrorists, despite the fact that terrorists and their victims number in the thousands while law-abiding technology-users number in the billions. Do criminals take advantage of secure devices to commit crimes? Certainly. They also meet in private places and dark corners, but I wouldn’t want surveillance cameras in every room. The principle of the court-approved property search or phone wiretap by law-enforcement agencies is a long-established one, yet we know that personal surveillance by government agencies like the American NSA goes so far beyond such practices as to be like spraying acres of farmland with herbicide to kill a dozen dandelions. Is it really about protection, or about control?
When did the citizens of democratic countries become OK with this? When did we forget that government is supposed to serve us, not the other way around?
Believe me, I’m a pretty boring guy with no juicy secrets to hide, not an anti-government radical, and the last person to cry “conspiracy”, but it alarms me to see how far we’ve come down this path since the terror attacks of 9/11, and how the politics of fear have begun to win out over our concerns for individual rights.
There are good reasons that so much science fiction has portrayed totalitarian governments, from 1984, to Fahrenheit 451, to The Hunger Games, and dozens of other novels and movies. The loss of individual identity and rights is a huge fear, and therefore ripe for drama. An already-slippery slope is made even more slippery by the progress of information-sharing technologies. Knowledge is power. Power corrupts. The stories write themselves. Unfortunately, it isn’t just fiction—the process happens in the real world all the time, and SF writers feel compelled again and again to warn us about what we’re getting ourselves into.
For more of us every day, our lives play out online through our computers, tablets, and smartphones. There will come a time when our devices will interact directly with our brains, and the potential privacy issues are the stuff of nightmares.
I’m not trying to paint governments as the bad guys and tech corporations as white knights either. It would be disingenuous of Apple and other tech giants to portray themselves as the guardians of our privacy when corporations’ appetite for our personal information is at least as voracious as governments’, creating the most invasive marketing practices society has ever seen. What I am saying is that access to personal and private information is getting out of hand and will only get worse as technology progresses. Who should have access to our individual information, and how much? That’s a choice we can’t leave to others to make for us.
I was interested to read about a new foray into the battle by the makers of the app WhatsApp (a company, incidentally, that chooses to charge for their app rather than mine your personal data in order to throw ads at you.) They’ve just provided their users with encryption that even WhatsApp employees can’t get around. They not only won’t give government agencies access to what you do with the app, they can’t.
It’s possible that no encryption is truly unbreakable, but for now that sounds like a door with a good solid lock.