Privacy vs. tragedy

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Few cases have so starkly illuminated the conundrum of where the reasonable right to privacy ends and the needs of law enforcement start than the situation involving the iPhone of the terrorist who opened fire on his coworkers in San Bernardino, Calif. last December, killing several of them before he was killed himself in the shootout.

The FBI has wanted to pry open the contents of his iPhone for clues and leads to other individuals who might be planning something similar, or to gain a better understanding of what precipitated the tragic event which left 14 dead and 22 seriously injured. But Apple, the company which makes the iPhone, has refused to help them unlock the password security to the phone, fearing that its credibility with its customers around the world could be compromised if they yielded to the pressure from the U.S. government. Would customers in China, Russia, or anywhere else feel safe if one of their governments made the same push under similar circumstances? Where would this all end?

This truly is a landmark case that will influence for years to come where the dividing line between privacy and government power is set.

Two things strike us about this case, beyond the remarkable circumstances that gave rise to it. One is how companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, along with a host of smaller technological firms are less and less purely American firms, but global ones. That's not to suggest they are somehow unpatriotic to the nation that they are headquartered in, but rather that the scope of their products, whether hardware like the iPhone or online services that are offered worldwide, are in a different category — and this is a trend that is accelerating — from more traditional manufacturers, such as a General Electric or an automobile manufacturer, who were based in the U.S. while manufacturing and selling products through foreign subsidiaries. Like it or not, this globalizing trend, nowadays frequently highlighted by companies that move their headquarters offshore to avoid U.S. corporate taxes, isn't going away. In part because of devices like iPhones, and all the Internet companies that pass information through the phone — and which is actually used for much more than a plain old phone — business is much more internationalized. Heated rhetoric on the campaign trail notwithstanding, this evolution isn't turning around and returning to 1950s "normalcy."

That's one. The other is the collapse of faith and trust in institutions which at one time, not so terribly long ago, would have been given the benefit of the doubt. Just as new media outlets find themselves sharply questioned at every turn when something isn't perfectly sourced and documented, so too are governmental institutions suspected of always being too eager to pry into people's personal lives in pursuit of intelligence or information. Then they can't be trusted to handle that information properly. Businesses, churches and all manner of organizations that were once the glue which held society together are all viewed, it increasingly seems, with something of a gimlet eye by a jaded public.

There's no doubt that all these institutions had a hand in their own demise in the court of public opinion, but at some point it might be good to pause, take a deep breath, and think this through. Where are we going with the endless scepticism? It's healthy — very healthy — to a large degree. How far is too far?

We're no fans of giving the FBI, the National Security Agency, or any other federal police agency eager to have maximum access to personal devices like phones, but if that's the difference in saving lives, then we think the time has come for Apple to work with the FBI to crack the code on the San Bernardino gunman's phone. Put it this way — if horrific events like 9/11 or the recent mass terror shootings in Paris could have been forestalled had a terrorist's phone come into the hands of law enforcement prior to the tragedy, isn't saving those lives more important? Such life and death decisions are what is at stake here.

Maintaining reasonable protections against government snooping — whether it's our government or somebody else's — is a very big deal. But so is protecting the country as a whole. The next terror incident could be a cyber attack, on our apparently vulnerable electric grid, or financial institutions, or something that has the effect of knocking the entire economy off course. It seems unreasonable to risk that to hold personal privacy on such a high altar. These are hard calls and there are no perfectly right answers. But it's time for Apple, and other firms worried about their brand credibility, to work with federal agencies in a way that protects their integrity to the greatest degree possible so the next 9/11 doesn't happen in the first place.

In the meantime, we can all become a little more cognizant and aware of all the personal information we cheerfully put out there, whether it's on social media or a phone, so there's less to be worried about in the first place.


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