Mercyhurst community chimes in on Apple privacy issue

Melanie Todd, Staff writer

America is abuzz with questions of privacy since the Federal Bureau of Investigations got a judge to order Apple to give them access to an iPhone involved in the December San Bernardino terrorist attack. The FBI seeks to find additional information on the attack from gaining access to the iPhone.

“It’s [privacy] not a new issue. The balance we have to strike in democratic government, the responsibility that we have is to ensure individual privacy and the government’s responsibility to provide citizens with security,” Robert Heibel, founder and business developer of the Tom Ridge School of Intelligence, said.

Currently, there is no precedent for cases such as this. In a separate case, a New York judge ruled in favor of Apple over the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA referenced the All Writs Act of 1789, which allows federal courts to issue “necessary or appropriate writs.”

“This speaks to a larger problem though. Our laws lag so far behind the technology. The technology increases more quickly than laws,” said Brian Sheridan, communication lecturer.

Smartphones are thoroughly integrated into society. Phones now have more in common with computers than simple telephones. They contain text messages, call logs, banking information, passwords, along with various other information. Additionally, Apple is a global company, which raises even more questions about the scope of law enforcement and national security.

“We’re doing this because we think that protecting the security and the privacy of hundreds of millions of iPhone users is the right thing to do,” Bruce Sewell, Apple’s general counsel told the Washington Post.

Within the first week of having the iPhone, recovered from the suspects in the San Bernardino attack in December, the FBI attempted to change the password remotely from the iCloud. The goal was to prevent anyone from remotely altering the information on the device, but resulted in the phone locking down. If the agents incorrectly enter the password, the phone will now erase.

“It’s not just one phone that they are talking about. They want a key to unlock anywhere from ten-one hundred phones involved in other cases that aren’t even terrorist related,” Sheridan said.

The final verdict of this case will set an important precedent for all future cases and ultimately impact citizens’ privacy rights.

“Terrorism scares us and we behave in ways that are often harmful to us because we are scared. If this was closer to 9/11 and Edward Snowden had not leaked those documents, then I think the FBI would get what they want, but now I think there’s more value on privacy,” Sheridan said.

One of terrorism’s goals is control through fear. Even though the FBI is working to counter terroristic efforts, terrorists may potentially alter the perceived privacy of citizens through the psychological fear they inflict.

“You have to ask yourself the question: if prior to 9/11 we had access to an iPhone to prevent what took place, there’s no question it would happen,” Heibel said.

It is even more important to consider if they do gain access to iPhones, the extent to which they are able to use that power.

“The key here is that there is legislation and some type of overseeing body. Right now we have FISA courts established to oversee issuing of authority to eavesdrop. We need something similar to that,” Heibel said.

This case has been very public and is personal for the many Apple customers and all smartphone users. However, it would start a new precedent of heightened government involvement and control in private industry. If they gain access to one, case law will support access to all.

“They can have my iPhone when they pry it out of my cold, dead hands,” Sheridan said.