Is Privacy Partisan? Apple verses the FBI

Privacy, Technology

by Mack Freeman

A new article out from The Atlantic examines whether privacy is becoming a partisan issue. Traditionally, digital privacy has been an issue that people from across the political spectrum have been able to come together to support. Between lefty people concerned about civil liberties and people on the right concerned about government encroachment, privacy is one of the issues that has been consistently able to attract strange bedfellows in Washington and throughout the country. However, the recent case between the FBI and Apple has shown that when the question gets reframed, support for digital privacy can drop like a stone.

For those that don’t know, the FBI verses Apple situation has been succinctly described by Apple in a letter to their customers as follows: “The government asked a court to order Apple to create a unique version of iOS that would bypass security protections on the iPhone Lock screen. It would also add a completely new capability so that passcode tries could be entered electronically.” The FBI made this request to unlock the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.

The divide in opinion happens to differ along political lines. Via The Atlantic:

Two recent polls show that Americans’ allegiances in the Apple-FBI conflict are split by party. One poll, conducted in mid-February by Reuters, showed that 54 percent of Democrats supported Apple, compared to just 37 percent of Republicans. Another poll, conducted a few days later by Morning Consult, found a similar split, but less support for Apple: 49 percent of Democrats said Apple should cooperate with the FBI, compared to 57 percent of Republicans.

This is echoed in the words of the presidential candidates this year. The Republicans have sided with the FBI while the Democratic candidates have taken more of a middle ground approach. As the issue devolves into one side seeing it as a law-and-order, terrorism threat issue and the other side sees it as a matter of personal liberty and privacy protection, the chance of the two sides starting to talk past each other increases. And as with many other important issues of this highly-polarized age, privacy and its constituent concerns run the risk of becoming just one more battlefield between two armies that actively despise one another.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The important thing to remember is that privacy is not a partisan issue. Making sure that every person has the right to their own thoughts and ideas without interruption or interception by the government is an idea that everyone can get behind. Further, the value of strong encryption goes beyond any one particular case; it keeps a large number of people safe from cybercriminals of all stripes.

While there are those out there that support the idea of handing over the keys to Apple’s encryption to help the FBI investigate these crimes, such an action would permanently harm the safety of everyone using an Apple device. Once created, there would be no way to keep such a key safe from criminals who would want. Further, once created, there would be no way to stop the government from seeking to overuse this tool whenever it suited their purposes to acquire information. Policies cannot be shaped in response to the most egregious cases because once in place, they will be used in ways that no one ever considered. The unintended consequences of bad privacy policies is something that people of all political ideologies have started to come to grips with in recent years; now is not the time to slide back into bad privacy habits.


John “Mack” Freeman is the Marketing and Programming Coordinator for the West Georgia Regional Library. He is a past recipient of the Freedom to Read Foundation’s Conable Scholarship, and a 2015 ALA Emerging Leader.

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