If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.
We have heard this so many times since the birth of the security state following the 9/11 attacks that we scarcely give it a second thought. But there was life before the TSA, the Patriot Act, “enhanced” border security, metal detectors, and clear backpacks. It’s just getting harder to remember with each passing year. This week, Reuters sources revealed that, at the FBI’s urging, Apple dropped a plan that would have made it impossible for Apple to unlock data on users’ phones.
Yet still, we are told that if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear. Not that we could hide much anyway at this point. Our online lives are archived and CCTV captures a good deal of what we do in public every day. Our cell phones are tracking devices that we carry at almost every moment. The federal government does its level best to keep track of as much of this data as it can.
Therein lies the rub. The government sees the personal data of American citizens as a treasure trove of information to be used to both solve and prevent crimes. American citizens, on the other hand, tend not to think about government monitoring efforts all that much. When they do, they seem to regard them the same way they regard random traffic stops, frisks before concerts and ball games, endless TSA lines at the local airport, and facial recognition software. They are government-mandated inconveniences that Americans have no choice but to endure.
While an individual can’t stand up to the full weight of the security state, there are at least a few corporations that could. One opportunity is brewing after the December attack at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla., an attack that was unambiguously an act of terrorism. A member of the Saudi Air Force, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, killed three and injured eight in a shooting spree that lasted 15 minutes.
The Department of Justice says there is no evidence that the shooting was anything other than the act of a lone gunman, but the government nonetheless wants to unlock two iPhones that belonged to the gunman. The Justice Department wants access to data and messages contained within encrypted apps in order to determine whether Alshamrani did, in fact, act alone on that fateful day in December.
This is where the security story gets interesting. Apple is stonewalling the federal government, and the attorney general of the United States is becoming agitated. “We don’t want to get into a world where we have to spend months and even years exhausting efforts when lives are in the balance,” said Attorney General William Barr. “We should be able to get in when we have a warrant that establishes that criminal activity is underway.”
This isn’t the first time that Apple and the federal government have come to loggerheads over privacy concerns. In December 2015, a husband and wife terrorist team killed 14 people and injured 22 more in San Bernardino, Calif. Apple defied a court order to assist the FBI in accessing the shooters’ phones. The FBI ended up working with a private company to access the phones, leaving the question of what Apple might be required to do for another day. And now, it’s another day.
In these cases, there were clear suspects and even search warrants. But to arrange matters so that the government has access to these phones opens the door to the government having access to all phones.
What should the public want Apple to do?
We can hold to current policy and say, “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear,” or we can finally draw our own line in the sand. We can say that we are sick of being treated as suspects as a matter of course. We can say that we are tired of being frisked, prodded, and groped as we move about our daily lives. We can say that we have had enough of the government’s prying into every aspect of our digital lives.
No one of us has the power to draw that line. But Apple could. And if Apple doesn’t continue to do so, there are plenty of entrepreneurs out there who would love the opportunity to try. Either way, if consumers demand the privacy that should be accorded free people, we will eventually get it. The open question is whether Apple wants to be the one to provide it.
Antony Davies is an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James R. Harrigan is the managing director of the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona. They host the weekly podcast, Words & Numbers.