This past Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote a letter to Apple customers warning them of the privacy concerns posed by the US government’s invasive demands regarding the San Bernardino gunman’s phone. The Justice Department had ordered Apple to bypass security functions on the iPhone, and Apple had struck back with a public letter to its customers and a promise to appeal the ruling. While it is still too early to predict the final outcome, this is the latest – and possibly most relevant – national security vs. privacy case in recent times and likely to set precedents for years to come.
When we think about modern technology, we generally think of the gains that have come with it. Human beings live longer and healthier lives than ever before. States are rich, social welfare is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, and we have iPhones. Convenience and speed are two of the defining traits of the 21st century. Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!
What we don’t really think about is the dark side of technology: how technology has facilitated infringements on some of our core values and liberties. After all, the wealth of information on the internet is much more alluring than the lurking threat of telecommunications surveillance. It’s ludicrous to expect anyone will stop using their phones and computers because the government may be listening in or have future potential to. Modern technology has merged itself into our daily lives, and it’s not leaving.
Technology has the potential to either reinforce or destabilize democracy itself. The internet allows for an unprecedented amount of knowledge transfer; the entire world is online. It has never been so easy to express yourself to an infinitely large audience and mobilize large amounts of people. Anyone can start a blog and gain followers. Change.org has over 50 million users that promote both impactful and frivolous issues; petitions range from demanding transgender rights to demanding a school district snow day. Both Facebook and Twitter have revolutionized the ways in which individuals interact with each other and disseminate information on social media.
However, modern technology has also enabled unprecedented mechanisms for civilian surveillance and invasions of privacy—by both states and third parties. It is very easy to collect and dissect large amounts of data, using methods such as IP tracking, internet cookies, and spyware. The current trend towards increasingly invasive telecommunications surveillance can not only undermine the integrity of the marketplace of ideas, but also create obstacles to assembly and other forms of expression. If individual privacy is not protected by the state on mediums such as your personal cell phone or the internet, people may not feel secure expressing themselves and disseminating information.
We are living in a modernized version of Bentham’s Panopticon; Orwell’s dystopian society has become a scary reality. Unchecked government surveillance will inevitably lead to self-censorship, as people adjust to the new reality of Big Brother watching. For example, a recent domestic scandal involves the IRS disproportionately targeting conservative nonprofit organizations in tax investigations. When groups are unfairly targeted based on their policy positions or political motivations, we see the democratic process begin to breakdown.
In order to protect our core values and liberties, we need to rethink the government’s role in the 21st century. It’s easier than ever for the government to enter our private lives, so we need to consciously work to carve out a safe space of individual autonomy separate from civil and political society. While we all want to see the responsible parties in the San Bernardino attacks brought to justice, it is a dangerous precedent to set for the government to ask Apple to build a “backdoor” to the iPhone. This is the definition of a slippery slope. There shouldn’t be tradeoffs between technology and privacy, technology and constitutional liberties, and technology and democracy. However, reverting back to the Dark Ages, otherwise known as an era without the iPhone 6S, is not an option. Instead, it’s time to rethink the rules of the government surveillance game.