Apple’s open letter sheds light on privacy issues


Tens of thousands have flocked to Twitter on their Apple iPhones, tweeting with the hashtag #FBIvsApple. Ironically, the National Security Administration (NSA) may very well be simultaneously surveilling many of these digital talking heads.

Apple made headlines Feb. 16 when it released an open letter to its customers regarding the Federal Bureau of Investigations’s (FBI) demand that Apple restructure security features in its operating system to give the government access to data stored on the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Apple stated in the letter that it usually complies with legal requests from the government but that the most recent demand from the government threatens individual privacy.

Apple’s motion kickstarts a much-needed debate on government surveillance. However, contrary to recent criticisms, Apple is not publicly resisting the FBI solely for a noble cause — the corporation is also benefiting from a new prestige among consumers, especially among millennials, by standing up to a powerful government institution.

Apple attempts to craft an image of itself as the underdog, the friendly corporation standing up to the tyrannical overreach of a big brother government. Running a company that collects over $170 billion in revenue per year, Apple executives clearly understand the importance of marketing. As consumer demands, preferences and beliefs change, so do Apple’s marketing strategies.

Many consumer markets heavily target college students. Some accomplish this goal by capitalizing on and emulating values commonly held by the demographic, including an opposition to institutional control and an emphasis on public accountability. That same call for accountability and transparency is present in the recent NSA controversy, and Apple is channeling that positive energy into creating a sense of unity with this consumer base through their open letter.

Technological tools such as the iPhone have unquestionably altered society, making human communication easier and faster than ever before. Yet they also introduce the possibility for a complete exploitation of individual privacy. Surveillance work is being done for federal agents every time a tweet is written or a new photo shared.

The FBI is essentially asking Apple to change its software so the agency can get past the encryption on the iPhone and electronically slip past password protection. Apple does not oppose the FBI’s access to the shooter’s phone, but does oppose the fact that once such software is created, it could and would be applicable to all iPhones, according to CEO Tim Cook.

Apple’s chief grievance is that the FBI’s demand to create a “backdoor” into the iPhone that would allow the FBI to bypass passwords.

“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor, and while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control,” Cook said in the open letter.

James Comey, director of the FBI, said this disagreement is framed as the conflict of two essential American values: privacy and security. For the FBI, it comes down to giving up some personal privacy for increased security overall. This, however, is not the limit to the potential consequences. If the FBI succeeded in forcing Apple to construct a ‘backdoor,’ other governmental agencies including the NSA would jump on the chance to legally circumvent encryption and would have an infinitely easier time gaining a legal approval.

General security would be jeopardized, not reinforced, by creating a ‘backdoor.’ The mere fact that such a technology would exist would allow countless more people to quickly obtain access to iPhones, from hackers to foreign governments. In attempting to secure the nation, the FBI would in reality be endangering it.

Apple is deftly portraying itself as a altruistic company. While the corporation arguably has some ulterior motives, this action is still an attempt to curb the overreach of agencies such as the FBI into citizens’ personal lives. Cook said he wished to directly contact President Obama, and, additionally, that he is willing to bring the matter all the way to the Supreme Court.

The dangers of opening up core security features on a device so widespread and integral in the present day as the iPhone are abundantly evident, and the issue of encryption needs to come to a legislative decision in some manner. To stave off the risk of losing personal freedoms, a combination of public pressure on the government in addition to corporate action such as Apple’s letter is necessary.