For Apple, the standoff with the FBI was a sales pitch – a grandstanding and gratuitous advertising opportunity.
Right to privacy is important but not paramount, especially when societal and national considerations are on the line.
Fear of abuse can’t deny the state its powers in a milieu where terrorists’ instructions travel through the internet and satellite phones.
That the FBI pursued its mandate in l’affaire Apple Computers by getting the Apple smartphone, found on the deceased Californian terrorist at San Bernardino, hacked with help from an outside agency, is a good news. The outside agency would be vilified by the privacy enthusiasts or hailed as an ethical hacker while Apple will have to sulk and eat humble pie.
Apple was indulging in
grandstanding by ostensibly taking up cudgels for its millions of customers, who
in turn supported Apple. In the process, both put privacy on
a pedestal higher than the nation’s security.
Apple had in mind the enormous and sharp shift in its growth chart. In other words, for it, the standoff with the FBI was a sales pitch – a grandstanding and gratuitous advertising opportunity bordering on gorilla marketing, riding on the enthusiasm of its customers and privacy enthusiasts. It also reckoned that no terrorist would store such ‘devastating’ secrets so close at hand. And it also reckoned that it alone had the expertise in hacking, albeit in the capacity of a manufacturer. In the process, it underestimated the power of hackers, both ethical and cynical.
Apple would have won greater public acclaim and gratitude had it cooperated with the FBI like any other good corporate citizen. Parenthetically, it may be mentioned that it first behaved as a bad corporate citizen by hiding in the new tax haven, Ireland, with a view to reducing its tax bill at home. And now this.
Right to privacy is important but not paramount, especially when societal and national considerations are on the line. Much the same is being witnessed in India with the Supreme Court being seized of the matter in the Aadhaar versus privacy issue. But the NDA government at the Centre has boldly soldiered on with the Aadhaar Act that gives security considerations the primacy subject to suitable safeguards. This is as it should be.
Apple can enjoy its prima donna status and profits only if the nations it operates from are safe. Individuals can enjoy their privacy only if the nations they are living in are safe. That is why it is axiomatic that virtually all governments of the world are entitled to indulge in ethical phone tapping and other forms of intrusive surveillance, despite the fact that such powers can be abused at times. But the fear of abuse cannot be an excuse for denying the state its much needed powers, especially in a milieu where lethal coded messages and instructions travel through the internet and satellite phones.
It is said that 99 criminals can escape but even one innocent should not go to the gallows. But what is not said is that 99 private citizens can be denied their privacy but one terrorist cannot be allowed to sneak through. Let this now be the mantra, the counter and the riposte to the privacy-at-all-cost enthusiasts. Apple has been made to eat humble pie. Let it not turn around and say that it stands vindicated if the FBI finds nothing incriminating in the smartphone.
Bank lockers are opened by the police in front of the bank officials and independent witnesses, and the items found inside are meticulously listed. A similar mechanism can be found for hacking open a smartphone and other electronic gizmos by law enforcing agencies.