One could say that the Justice Department’s finding a way to unlock an iPhone without help from Apple is unfortunate.
To some, it could further delay serious discussion about privacy rights in this age of fast-evolving technology.
Congress needs to face up to its obligation to have this debate and to come to some reasonable conclusion. It needs to balance privacy rights with the increasingly challenging task of keeping the country safe from those who would commit mass murder.
This is a long-standing and continually developing issue, and one that Congress has largely ignored, as technology changes and becomes a tool of terrorists. Fundamentally, the law has not kept pace with science. But the need for a response is plain, even if the answers are difficult.
More and more Americans keep personal information, sometimes sensitive information, on their smartphones. Constitutionally, they have a right to privacy.
Yet the ability to monitor terrorists, who value body counts above all else, is also tied to technology, as is the investigation of crimes such as the San Bernardino, Calif., massacre that prompted this confrontation.
Both sides have compelling cases, which is a prescription for court action. It would be better for Congress to debate and resolve these questions.
Privacy advocates say they will keep the issue at the forefront, but the Justice Department has withdrawn its legal effort to compel Apple to unlock an iPhone and, in so doing, assist in an investigation of a mass shooting.
The phone belonging to one of the San Bernardino killers, Syed Rizwan Farook, may contain information about where he and his wife, an accomplice in that horrific attack in which 14 people died, may have traveled, who they contacted or any further plots.
The government wanted to get access to the phone’s information. A federal magistrate ordered Apple to help the FBI hack into the phone, but CEO Tim Cook balked. In a public letter he outlined his deep displeasure, saying that “compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk.”
And so it went, back and forth among the company, privacy advocates and the government. For Apple, it was a matter of reputation and company security; for the government, a matter of national security and pursuing an important criminal investigation.
The standoff ended when the government finally gained access. Officials aren’t talking about how they got into the smartphone, but the New York Times quoted a law enforcement official who said, on condition of anonymity, “that a company outside the government provided the FBI with the means to get into the phone,” an iPhone 5C running Apple’s iOS 9 mobile operating system.
Apple wants to know exactly how it was done. The government may classify the method.
This fight over an iPhone’s information begs the question as to whether the government will again employ its newfound workaround. Last month, a federal magistrate judge refused to grant an order that would have required Apple to extract data from an iPhone used by a drug dealer in Brooklyn. The Justice Department is appealing.
Congress needs to clarify these issues involving critical questions of privacy and national security.