The US government has requested Apple to create a “new version of the iPhone Operating System, circumventing several important security features”, and install it on the iPhone of Syed Farook recovered during the San Bernardino terrorist attack investigation. Arising from this is a dispute centred around privacy; the new system leads to a potential future where the FBI might be able to brute force access any iPhone, something which Apple deems unacceptable. The order is currently being fought in court.
Why shouldn’t Apple comply with the FBI?
Utilitarianism theory maintains that an action is right if it leads to happiness for the greatest number of people. But how does it apply to this case?
This new technology would supposedly be constructed to access only a single phone, yet Apple argue that it could be used as a template to create a universal access program for any iPhone. There are 75 million iPhone owners in the US alone; this poses a potential privacy risk for all users. The FBI believes that the iPhone in question may contain important information in the form of Syed Farook’s contacts and communications. If he was part of a network of terrorists and another attack is being planned, then lives are at stake. However, even considering the family and friends of potential victims, 75 million is a far greater number than the people that could be affected by further terrorist attacks. Moreover, there is no guarantee that there is useful information on Farook’s phone that would prevent an attack, whereas there is (according to Apple) a definite risk to every iPhone user’s privacy. Introducing a back door would set a dangerous precedent for countries all over the world, increasing the number of people whose privacy is at stake.
Aside from the ethical perspective, one could also argue that what the FBI is asking is a breach of privacy laws of the United States. Modern tort law covers several categories on the invasion of privacy, one of which is the intrusion of solitude and seclusion: “physical or electronic intrusion into one’s private quarters”. This leaves Apple with a potential route through the scheduled Supreme Court hearings.
Furthermore, the United States harbours a culture with a heavy emphasis on personal freedom, and many iPhone users would see any unwanted modification to their phone’s software as a threat to this. Therefore, if Apple were to grant access to the FBI, this has the potential to destroy their reputation and customer loyalty, reducing company profits, and in turn also affecting employees – a further negative impact on the happiness of a vast number of people. According to the engineering code of conduct, one of the four main statements of ethical principles is ‘honesty and integrity’; specifically that the ‘reputation of other parties should be duly respected’.
Based on this utilitarianism framework, as well as the laws and culture of the US, Apple should refuse to create the software.
Why should Apple comply with the FBI?
Nevertheless, it is possible to argue that Apple should comply with the FBI’s request in order to help combat the growing threat of terrorism and safeguard the security of its nation.
The FBI is simply asking for the technology to be developed for one phone and will allow Apple to work on the phone at its own HQ, therefore eliminating the risk of this encryption software being released into the world. Although, arguably, this risk is low; surely if hackers would be able to access this information, they would already be capable of infiltrating other Apple software?
It is also important to consider Apple’s motivation behind their public refusal to comply with the FBI’s request; it is possible that Apple are motivated by business advertisement, not ethics. By refusing the FBI’s request, Apple are publicly seen to be defending their iPhone users’ privacy, hence gaining the support of their stakeholders. However, the threat to the privacy of their stakeholders is questionably much smaller than has been presented in the media. Additionally, Apple has already extracted information from iPhones running operating systems prior to iOS 8, under a lawful court order. This action has not resulted in the consequences claimed by Apple.
The FBI is responsible for safeguarding the national security of the United States, and possessing vital intelligence is the key to protecting citizens from further terrorist attacks. The culture of terrorism has transformed with the development of technology, which has allowed the radicalisation and recruitment of terrorists from across the world. The perpetrators are often directed by a higher force within the organisation; hence identifying and intercepting these key figureheads is crucial to eliminating threats and dissolving the groups. Access to the information on this phone is essential for the FBI to be able to carry out informed investigations that are compatible with the culture of terrorist activity.
Contrary to the previous utilitarian view that safeguarding the privacy of every iPhone user brings the greatest amount of happiness for the largest number of people, it could also be argued through a utilitarian view that the further terrorists attacks would cause increased despair, as the extent of the intelligence on Farook’s phone is unknown. Regardless of these perspectives, Kantian theory states that murder should always be prevented and so this overrules the utilitarian theory.
Moreover, the ability to access the information on the phone reduces the risk of alternative umbrella surveillance techniques based on machine learning algorithms, such as those currently used by the NSA, which are surrounded with controversy regarding their accuracy.
Apple are essentially protecting a murderer’s privacy at the cost of public safety.
The possible outcomes of this moral dilemma are:
- Apple comply with the FBI’s request (either willingly or ordered by the Supreme Court),
- Apple refuses to create the software and defies the FBI.
What would you do if you were Apple?
Jay Chinchen, Adam Cross, Elaine Livera, Rebecca Jane Ede