On Privacy and Security in the Digital World

Article By: Carlos Po

On December 2, 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, showed up to a banquet for the San Bernardino Department of Health and opened fire, killing 14 people and injuring 22. They fled the scene in a SUV, but were killed by police four hours later. While an FBI investigation later revealed that neither had been directly radicalized by any groups such as ISIS, they had apparently been inspired to commit the shooting by acts performed by these groups.

The likelihood that the case would provide valuable information into these groups strengthened when the FBI came into possession of Farook’s iPhone. Unable to bypass the phone’s security, the FBI ordered tech giant Apple, the phone’s manufacturer, to aid them in accessing the shooter’s phone in order to gain insight into the months leading up to the shooting. Apple, viewing the request as a breach of privacy, declined. As online security experts waited with bated breath for the trial’s conclusion, the FBI abruptly dropped the case and revealed it had hacked its way into the phone without Apple’s help.

Despite this, the government continued to badger Apple about iPhone security, when a New York City drug trafficking case led to the acquisition of another iPhone containing potentially useful information. Apple responded by claiming that the request would “thoroughly undermine fundamental principles of the constitution,” firing back by forcing the government to question the morality of their actions.

The whole debacle sparked an international debate about privacy vs security. Is the government justified in breaching the privacy of the shooters in the interest of national security, and if they are, where will they draw the line? Or is Apple at fault here, willing to let more innocent blood be shed while they pretend to claim the moral high ground? Sides are being taken in the war for cybersecurity that is rapidly forcing the world to reconsider the benefits of technology globalising the world.

When National Security Agency (NSA) employee Edward Snowden leaked classified government papers to the world in 2013, citizens of the USA learned just how little online privacy the government granted them. The leaked papers revealed that the NSA had been collecting telephone records from citizens, aided by the servers of technology giants like Facebook, Google, and Yahoo in a project codenamed “Prism”. For this, Snowden was charged with theft of government property and breach of secrecy, and he fled to Sweden. Some consider him a traitor to his country for undermining national security, and others view him as a hero who did what no one else would.

In this writer’s opinion, the rapidly advancing technological landscape forces at least some kind of compromise in favor of security; however, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “those who trade liberty for security deserve neither,” and steps must be taken to ensure that we do not lose sight of our individuality completely.