The legal battle between Apple and the FBI regarding the content of the San Bernadino shooter’s phone continues, and as Apple have said in a public statement, they have good reasons for not wanting to create the software necessary to comply with the FBI’s demands:
We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.
Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.
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.
Several other tech and social media companies have backed Apple’s decision to resist the FBI’s demands, but apparently Americans don’t. A recent poll conducted for Reuters found that 46% of Americans believe that Apple should build the requested software. Conversely, 35% think Apple is right to resist the government’s order, and 20% are still unsure.
This has been true for a while. A Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll revealed that the majority of Americans (56%) find it acceptable for authorities to collect data on millions of Americans in order to investigate terrorism—but that’s when the question is posed in such a way so that it might not pertain to them personally. When asked in a different poll (also Pew) whether people should have to give up privacy in order to combat terrorism, they resoundingly reject it 74-22.
What gives? How do Americans paradoxically claim they’re okay with the government potentially hacking into our phones to investigate terrorism, but oppose giving up their privacy? It boils down to one thing: the specter of terrorism.
Take gun control. Starting in 1990, Gallup has asked whether people believe laws concerning the purchase of guns should be stricter, stay the same, or looser:
So not once have Americans ever believed that gun purchasing laws should be less strict, and only for a very brief period was there nearly overlap between those who believed laws should be stricter and those who believe they should stay the same. Yet in a different poll, 63% thought mass shootings were more a result of inadequate mental health treatment than the 23% who attributed it to lax gun laws. And get this: when asked which was a better deterrent to terrorism, 47% believe Americans carrying more guns is a better solution than the 42% who believe in stricter gun laws. So stricter gun laws and government not spying on citizens are good ideas—until the threat of terrorism rears its head.
And that’s why there’s such a different reaction to the shooting in San Bernadino and the shooting at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For San Bernadino, the government can pressure Apple into giving it the ability to hack anyone’s data because the terrorist might have a ‘cyber pathogen‘ (is there a reason they can’t say virus? because it’s too innocuous a term? something we associate with e-mails with typos in the subject line advertising porno sites?), but because the Santa Barbara shooting was perpetrated by a young guy with a deranged vendetta, we get the likes of Joe the Plumber telling the parents their dead kids don’t trump his gun rights.