iPhone encryption highlights privacy issues


Matthew Tessler, Contributing Columnist

Apple’s iPhone 6 encryption makes it more difficult for the federal government to access data on iPhones. As this change was initiated by Apple, the largest seller of consumer technology in the world, the iPhone 6 encryption has received a great deal of publicity, and other companies may follow suit. The encryption begs the question of how consumers should feel about this change. Before accepting Apple’s move as a genuine concern for safety rather than a marketable feature designed to sell more phones, iPhone users should seriously consider the relationship between privacy and the use of personal data in preventing terrorist attacks. 

After leaked government documents proved that fears about large-scale surveillance are legitimate, concerns were raised about the balance between privacy and constitutional rights. It was determined that the NSA’s ability to access information en masse, without receiving individual warrants, was a violation of Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Consumers must consider this ruling in the context of Apple’s encryption. Given Fourth Amendment protections, the public should ask if Apple complicating the federal government’s access to data is beneficial.

Ultimately, consumers must decide which poses a greater threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — an increasingly omniscient government or a terrorist attack. Privacy is important, but it dims in the public’s eyes when threats become imminent. The 2001 USA Patriot Act passed almost unanimously after 9/11 and, less than two months after the terrorist attack, Americans willingly sacrificed privacy in the name of protection.

As threats to national security seem less imminent, it becomes easier to reject certain types of surveillance. People were infuriated when details of the NSA leaks came to light. But now, a year after the revelation, circumstances are different. ISIS quickly gained power over the summer and the threat has escalated to the point where a cooperative military effort against it is necessary. Accordingly, ISIS’ presence makes the odds of a terrorist attack seem more likely, even if the rumors of imminent attacks are not credible. It makes the public more paranoid  and more cautious. It also makes the public more accepting of diminished Fourth Amendment rights and privacy. Fears of the Orwellian state are pushed to the back burner.

In the months and years to come, as more is learned about the NSA, ISIS and how those two groups affect public life, consumers should reflect on Apple’s decision to encrypt its new phones. The next time a customer goes to the Apple Store to purchase a new iPhone, he or she should think about the tension between rights, privacy and the individual’s role in both. Apple’s encryptions put more power in the hands of the people by letting individuals assess the balance of privacy and protection alongside the implicit consequences the iPhone 6 has on both.

A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 6 print edition. Email Matthew Tessler at [email protected].