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Secondo ’16: Apple should protect consumer privacy

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Having grown up during the technology boom of the past two decades, we tech-savvy millennials see the use of personal devices and daily technologies as natural extensions of ourselves. Our virtual profiles and online activities project who we are into cyberspace. We swipe, scroll and surf through interfaces and apps with ease, trusting complex programs and algorithms to let us know where we are going, what we want to buy or how we are feeling — often with more accuracy and precision than our own capabilities. It seems our faith in technology is absolute, born out of our innate comfort with its use and presence and reaffirmed by constant innovation to make our lives easier.

Interestingly, this trust has been transferred to the companies that produce such modern marvels. Their dazzling products, innovative spirit and stellar returns have fostered an image of unstoppable market domination and capitalist might. But they are also the most aggressively invasive collectors of personal metadata, and we are okay with that.

Rather than feel like a hostage to the likes of a Facebook or Google, we relish the endless vortex of technological consumer culture by surrendering our dollars and data without much considered thought. Our collective Stockholm Syndrome has allowed the tech titans to cultivate an intimate cult of personality to which we entrust our personal data like a sacrificial offering to some benevolent force. In exchange, we receive protection of privacy and a showering of countless products and services. By using any of this technology, we are essentially entering into a social contract with Silicon Valley.

But oddly enough, we became vehemently outraged when such collection of information was conducted by the entity fundamentally created to protect our lives, freedoms and real happiness. Edward Snowden’s leak of the U.S. government’s Internet surveillance through the National Security Administration’s bulk data collection programs sent shockwaves around the world. The post-9/11 intelligence paradigm once unquestionably imperative to national security was framed as a monstrous Big Brother. Its tentacles reached far beyond simple phone records and Internet time stamps, spying on foreign heads of state and coercing U.S. tech and media companies into supposedly cooperative partnerships.

Demands for reform came from individuals, corporations and nations around the world, yet the NSA continues to collect data to the sour dismay of countless citizens. So whom do we trust more to protect our privacy and provide greater social benefit: our democratic government or for-profit corporations? Data collection is a double-edged sword, and no matter how it swings, we are always sliced into pieces beyond our control.

With the return of terrorism to the forefront of national consciousness, the government’s battle for data control is now pitted against one of the world’s most valuable companies. Since the introduction of the iPhone, Apple has made significant advances in product and data security, with the shift to complete encryption in iOS 8 in 2014. Whether viewed as a means to leverage new consumer trust through a marketing ploy or demonstrate a libertarian commitment to the privacy of its customers in the wake of the Snowden disclosures, this move gives Apple the ability not to comply with the FBI to unlock Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone.

Apple has provided the phone’s accessible information to the authorities, but it stands against providing a brute force “back-door” overriding program to all the information. Providing the U.S. government with such a means to infiltrate the phone would open the door to all phones. It would beckon the issuing of warrants from other nations, friend and foe, and tempt hackers to infiltrate what is now widely perceived as the impenetrable Apple security system. Looking past the economic implications of conceding, once again on the chopping block is the protection of our privacy. If Apple complies, the sword will deliver a swift blow to our technological trust and perhaps sever the few remaining senses of protected privacy in this digital age.

Reid Secondo ’16 can be reached at reid_secondo@brown.edu.

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