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Digital Privacy: More than Hacking Facebook

September 29, 2014

A few days ago, the United States government contacted Google and Apple on a security issue. But not for a security flaw in their system, no. They were worried that Apple and Google were making their services and devices too secure. What?

Image by "Rock1997" from Wikimedia Commons, distributed under the GNU Free Documentation License

So here's what happened. Two Wednesdays ago, Apple made a change in how their servers handle storing data so that Apple itself has no way of obtaining any data locked inside a password-secured device. Previously, if the government requested some data from your devices, Apple was able to unlock the device for them with a digital key they kept in their servers. But starting last week, they can't anymore, because they aren't keeping those keys. So if you forget your password, tough luck. But if someone up there's looking for your messages or photos on your phone, they can't find it. Literally. Likewise, Google made a change in how their mobile devices store data starting this coming October to bring about the same effect.

Days after these announcements took place, the FBI contacted both companies, claiming that they were "marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law." Really? Okay. This is both frightening and unfortunately not so surprising in this post-Snowden era. In a letter addressed to the companies, FBI claimed that they were keeping information that could potentially prove useful in extreme and dire situations, citing child kidnapping and terrorist attacks as examples.

Two things in particular stuck out to me in this incident. First, that the United States government feels respecting the rights to privacy of citizens is "placing themselves above the law" -- that they value the written law more than our rights to privacy, and second, that they feel absolutely justified in throwing any privacy concerns out the window when someone is suspected of criminal offense.

Saying that tech companies should provide the government the tools to break into a smartphone is akin to saying every locksmith should provide a key to every single front door in the world, in case they need to check if someone's done something bad. Is keeping our front doors secure "placing ourselves above the law"? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, privacy is defined as freedom from unauthorized intrusion. That is, intrusion into our personal data in our mobile devices. And with the increasing penetration of our devices into our lives, this poses even greater risks. Today our phones collect a wide range of information from our location at any given time to our health data, not to mention the usual browsing history, apps, pictures and videos, and the other miscellaneous pieces of information like our contacts. I feel that we are entitled to the freedom to keep these information secure and private, out of sight of eyes of the others. Is that not a basic right to which all human beings are entitled? Should a government be able to ignore our right to such "freedom from intrusion" and act above its own principles? I would argue, and I am positive many of you as well, that a government action that tries to hinder our attempts to secure this basic right is not just nor deserving of our respect. Our securing of privacy is not placing ourselves above the law; it's keeping with and respecting the values of our system of justice.

In the conclusion of their letter to the companies, the FBI cited child kidnapping and terrorist threats as scenarios in which government access to private data could potentially be crucially beneficial. In other words, they seem to expressively throw out any values in people's rights to privacy when a possible criminal case is concerned. They are correct in saying that certain data may prove beneficial in investigating these cases. But does that grant the government the right to de-value a human being's rights when they deem it worthy? I'd argue on the contrary. Like the rights to autonomy and the right to life, our rights to privacy -- the right to secure our information and parts of life from prying eyes -- is a fundamental and basic right that cannot be alienated. And I don't think, just because someone is accused of evil, that anyone has the authority to take away that fundamental right. Even if the suspect were in fact guilty, I believe no one has the rights to take away his or her privacy, just as no one has the rights to murder or enslave him or her because of their ill-doings.

And yet, the U.S. government attempts to claim that authority. The actions of Apple and Google help us ensure that our right to privacy is respected better in their products and services, but the FBI seems to think that their efforts are somehow above the law, the founding principles of the culture, and the fundamental rights of its citizens. They seem to believe that in enforcing a piece of legislation, they have the justification to break other laws, the ones that are so fundamental to our existence that they go unspoken. I don't think they deserve that power, especially if their system of values is so skewed.

What's your take? Should the government reserve the rights to our most personal digital data if they can potentially be used to help criminal justice cases? Let me know in the comments; I look forward to sharing some opinions!

UPDATE: It seems that the push from the government continues. Today (Sept 30), the US Attorney General also expressed criticism against Google and Apple's marketing and implementation of security features in their services. The Attorney General, Eric Holder, says, "It is fully possible to permit law enforcement to do its job while still adequately protecting personal privacy." (source: 9to5Mac)