Should Apple comply with the FBI?

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.

Further remarks: 

The possible outcomes of this moral dilemma are:

  1. Apple comply with the FBI’s request (either willingly or ordered by the Supreme Court),
  2. 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


8 thoughts on “Should Apple comply with the FBI?

  1. Law enforcement perspective – The right to life and the right to privacy do not have equal weight in international law. International and national courts have historically allowed infringements to privacy where necessary to preserve life. A Court Order is intended to direct the handover of information (not the enabling technology). The legal process provides safeguards that prevent law enforcement agencies accessing personal data without statutory authority. Apple should access the data held on the phone and pass the same to the FBI. Apple’s marketing of it’s phones as being able to protect personal data is highly questionable from a practical and moral perspective. Any encryption or deletion can ultimately be countered now or in the future. Apple cannot hide behind this alleged commercial issue. It is inconceivable that Apple has designed a product that can be totally protected by the user only.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with the view that Apple shouldn’t comply with the FBI. As stated in the article, it sets a dangerous precedent going forward; who is to say that complying this one time will not lead to further security ‘hacks’ required of Apple and other companies by governments around the world?

    Stating “Apple has already extracted information from iPhones running operating systems prior to iOS 8” is not a valid point with regards to this case, as the FBI request involves reducing security so as to gain ‘back door’ access to iPhones, whereas in the previous cases the information has been available to Apple without the need to unlock the phones; see

    Ultimately, Apple is a business and businesses exist to make a profit. There is no doubt that performing what is asked of them by the FBI will affect their strong reputation for security and privacy and thus could have a material impact on their share price and business going forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree that the protection of life should be more important than the protection of privacy as long as there is a sound legal framework against which to justify the invasion of privacy. I suspect that our legal frameworks need to be developed to cater for this and we are dealing with a new area. In countries with strong legal systems (e.g. USA or UK) a judge can then decide whether the interest of intrusion is justified and issue a ‘search warrant’ within the constraints of the new law. Apple’s problem could be that in countries with weak legal systems access could be easily abused.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Apple should certainly not be complying with the FBI’s request due to the dangerous precedent this would set. It’s highly unrealistic to imagine such software would only be used the once- it would surely only be a matter of time before another prosecutor in another case cites this one as a precedent in order to gain access to another device. Indeed, in Apple’s own motion to vacate the FBI’s request, they cite a further 9 cases in which the FBI has used the same All Writs Act to gain access to an Apple device (

    Furthermore, there is no guarantee that that any useful evidence would be gained from having access to the device. There is no indication that Farook Syed and his wife were working as part of a network, and with both of them now dead, what possible information could be gathered that could prevent future attacks?

    The bottom line is that the potential cost of allowing the FBI access to the device far outweighs any possible benefit, and under no circumstances should this request be granted.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I feel in this case that Apple’s motives in not complying with the FBI’s request is purely down to marketing and sales. The security of iOS and iDevices is a main selling point and anything that threatens this, Apple will be against. Apple have always marketed their devices as being more secure than PCs but the iCloud hack of a couple of years ago showed that this is not true and by complying with the FBI’s request will risk consumer confidence further.

    From my own personal view, I feel that that the request that the FBI is making is not unreasonable and they have valid justification. If a solid framework can be developed with the judicial system that takes these requests on a case by case basis then I have no problem with it. However, as pointed out above, this may be problematic in countries where the legal system is not as robust as the UK or USA. The only issue that I have is from a technological perspective, making an operating system insecure by design is not a good idea and leaves it open to exploitation.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What the FBI are effectively trying to do is get rid of a security feature in the iPhone that will wipe the hard drive of all its memory after 10 incorrect attempts at the passcode. After this is done the FBI could use a simple brute force method to figure out the necessary passcode and will then have access to the shooters phone. But the software that Apple would make would not only enable the FBI to hack into this one singular device, it would allow the FBI, and anyone who has their hands on that software, to hack into any Apple device. In doing so, Apple would be throwing away the decades of work they have put into encryption and making Apple devices some of the most secure in the market. While this scenario would arguably only happen if the software could go into the wrong hands, why should Apple be forced to risk an integral part of their success on the laurels of the FBI, who themselves were hacked not too long ago by a 16 year old (

    Apart from the damaging potential to Apple, a leak could have disastrous consequences to the public. The FBI are arguing that being able to hack the phone of a terrorist would give them invaluable information to prevent further attacks and so saving lives in the future. Have they considered the possibility that this software gets into the hands of the terrorists themselves? It is likely that phones hacked by those with ill intentions will be more useful to than phones hacked by law enforcement trying to gather information.

    Finally, the request by the FBI is purely unconstitutional, encroaching on the first amendment right to free speech. Forcing a company to decrease the security of it’s customers is a loss to society. If this is what it’s come to, the people we’re trying to save ourselves from are triumphing. The fear they have created is being acted on to sacrifice the freedom of citizens in good standing. By standing up to the FBI, Apple is standing up for the public and taking a stronger stand against terrorism than the FBI are trying to portray themselves as taking.

    “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” – Louis Brandeis

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I believe that Apple are correct in rejecting the FBI’s requests to comply with them to unlock the shooter’s iPhone. As many of the previous commentators have stated, this request on it’s own may seem acceptable as it would help law enforcement gain access to crucial information that might help them in their investigation and prevent future attacks. However, the main problem here is that if Apple were to comply, then this opens up all sorts of debate on what sort of situations would make it acceptable to override the security features in place with these smartphones. This would naturally spread a sense of fear as it would mean that this would certainly not be the last of these requests and therefore this may become a more common procedure. For many consumers, the security features of these iPhones are one of the main reasons behind buying them and in an age where people are getting increasingly paranoid about the government’s access to our data, if Apple were to comply it would only heighten such worries.

    Furthermore, building software to get past the encryption in place would potentially have disastrous consequences for the general public’s data security as well since it would be very likely that hackers and cybercriminals would eventually get access to this software. While the government claims that this would be a one time thing, the reality is that it would essentially be a cyber master key that could be used multiple times and so would be dangerous in anyone’s hands really, whether the government or individuals. Despite this being one isolated case, if Apple were to comply then it would expose all their other customers to various security risks, which would really go against the decades of research and work that they have put into their encryption services in order to emphasize the security aspects of their products.

    Finally, as I and others have mentioned before, from a business perspective one of Apple’s key selling points is the security features of their products. Complying with the FBI would have negatives consequences on their public image and the long term effects would be a decrease in sales as people would not trust the company or buy their phones. By refusing this request, Apple have done well both from an ethical and business standpoint and I would hope that in the case of similar situations, other companies would do the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting points regarding the negative consequential effects of this technology being developed for this case, however have you considered potential positive effects of this software?
    What if you have a phone of a loved one who has passed away and you wish to access the photos and memories from their phone? Or maybe they keep valuable information on their phone required for sorting out their affairs? This software could be used to bring cherished memories such as photos to people who are filled with grief?
    This Italian father is currently making this plea to Apple.
    I understand that this is not a sole reason for Apple to comply with the FBI, nonetheless maybe a good point to consider?


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