The battle between Apple and the F.B.I. is beginning to carry some of the same drama as the final season of the PBS series, Downton Abbey. After discussing alternatives with Apple and other Silicon Valley tech companies for the past year, F.B.I. Director James Comey has turned to the federal courts to compel cooperation from Apple CEO Tim Cook in unlocking a known terrorist’s iPhone. Cook’s response is to fight the court’s order.
While I believe that Apple will lose in the short run, Cook is facing several ethical issues at once. First: his duty to his customers to whom he promised absolute and total privacy. Second: his duty to shareholders to continue to sell product while maintaining integrity for a top brand known around the world. The third question is perhaps the thorniest: what exactly is Apple’s moral obligation to the government?
The question was raised by New York Times writer Andrew Ross Sorkin (Feb. 23). “Mr. Cook has argued that complying with the court order would threaten ‘everyone’s civil liberties’ and make customers more vulnerable to digital crime. And Mr. Cook is not alone. Chiefs at several technology companies have supported his position.”
However, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton who writes in the same New York Times issue, “There was once such a thing called corporate responsibility. Now, it’s corporate irresponsibility.”
While most Americans view an attack by terrorists to be among the top concerns in the country, both Apple, the government, as well as other tech companies, need to walk very carefully through these next weeks and months as the issue works its way through the court system and ultimately, Congress.
In the meantime, Microsoft Founder Bill Gates has been interviewed on the issue and although his language is not as clear as it could be (it’s just the way he talks), he does acknowledge both sides of the controversy.
In an interview with CNN host Fareed Zakaria that is due to air this Sunday (Feb. 28), on Zakaria’s GPS (Global Public Square), Gates said, “This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They are not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case. All Apple’s doing is delaying the decision. So I don’t think it’s a big deal whether they gave in or didn’t give in.”
Yesterday, however, on Bloomberg Go, Gates stated that an earlier report in the Financial Times mischaracterized his position, namely, that he supports the F.B.I. in forcing Apple to obtain a program that allow the agency access to the iPhone of a known terrorist.
In the interview, Gates said that “it is a challenge to update the policies including those issues about when does the government have a right to know. Having a really good debate about when is that appropriate. In the extreme view that the government always gets everything, nobody supports that; having the government be blind, people don’t support that.
“I do believe that with the right safeguards, there are cases where the government, on our behalf – like stopping terrorism, which could get worse in the future – that that is valuable. But striking that balance – clearly the government’s taking information, historically and used it in ways that we didn’t expect. It went all the way back say, with the F.B.I. under J. Edgar Hoover. I’m hoping now that we can have the discussion. I do believe there are sets of safeguards where the government shouldn’t have to be completely blind.”
When asked about Apple’s specific case, Gates said, “Well, the courts are going to decide this, and I think Apple said that whatever the final court decision is, they’ll abide by it. In the meantime, that gives us the opportunity to get this discussion going. And these decisions will be decided in Congress: The Patriot Act, how that gets evolved. You don’t want to take just the minute after a terrorist event and swing in that direction, nor do you want to completely swing away from government access when you get some abuse being revealed. You want to strike some balance that the United States leads in setting an example.”
Late last night, The New York Times (Feb. 23), reports that “The Justice Department is demanding Apple’s help in unlocking at least nine iPhones nationwide in addition to the phone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., attackers.”