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The Ethics of Allowing the U.S. Government Access to Terrorist's iPhone

Do the Ends Justify the Means?

By now you know that a U.S. magistrate has ordered Apple to assist the government in unlocking the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. The FBI is seeking information that may be on Farook's employer-issued phone as it investigates the December 2 shootings that left 14 people dead. At the time of the attack, Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, destroyed two personally owned cellphones and removed a hard drive from their computer.

In what Apple described as a "customer letter" posted on its website last Tuesday, CEO Tim Cook said Apple will contest the judge's order. "Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government. We are challenging the FBI's demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications. While we believe the FBI's intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect."

This is a hot button issue for our society as evidenced by the questioning of the Presidential candidates about their view in last Thursday’s Republican debate. I’ve heard both sides of story and want to weigh in on my views from an ethical perspective.

Apple says helping the FBI will be like providing a universal key that will permit law enforcement to break into anyone's iPhone. Apple and other tech companies say it would also create a vulnerability that hackers from China, Iran or elsewhere can exploit.

Last week, FBI Director James Comey told members of Congress that investigators had been unable to access Farook's phone. He pointed out that "it is a big problem for law enforcement armed with a search warrant when you find a device that can't be opened even when a judge says there's probable cause to open it".

In a prior case, Apple told a federal judge that it was "impossible" for the company to unlock devices running an operating system of iOS 8 or higher. In arguing this latest case, prosecutors said Apple could still disable security barriers in the phone's coding. Farook's phone runs iOS 9 and, if the security feature is enabled, will erase data after 10 unsuccessful password attempts.

Forensics expert Jonathan Zdziarski said Apple might have to write custom code to comply with the court order. He also said that even without Apple's cooperation, federal investigators should be able to hack the phone with the assistance of the NSA and the CIA.

My initial reaction is to question why it took a catastrophic event to demonstrate to the government that such a problem exists. I find it hard to believe the government did not know that an event such as transpired in San Bernardino could lead to the dilemma of iPhone access as a necessary measure to keep our country secure and protect our individual liberties. It scares me that the government is playing catch up on this issue. The larger question is whether we have the security apparatus in place in the 21st century to ward off terrorist attacks and then gain valuable data from the attackers’ electronic devices that might prevent additional attacks and a blood bath in our streets.

Apple’s view is quite different. It has described the FBI's request as amounting to asking for "a backdoor to the iPhone" — a flaw in a security system purposefully designed to help law enforcement break in for investigations. But unlike the FBI's policy demands for encryption backdoors, here it is not asking for a change to the technology on all iPhones; instead, the court order calls for a targeted tool, software using unique identifiers of this individual phone. This is important as the FBI’s demand is narrowly focused so it may stand Constitutional scrutiny in a court of law.

So, the issue finally comes down to the rights of phone users to have secure information on their phones inaccessible by the government and the government’s duties to protect those rights of our citizens. The ethical issue is one of creating "a slippery slope." If the government is granted access in this case, where will it stop? Will foreign governments have similar access – or the right to it?

On the other hand, we can weigh the costs and benefits to society of requiring Apple to provide access to what is perceived to be a need to thwart future terrorist attacks. The benefits are clear: to protect society from harm and secure the homeland. But, at what cost? Do the ends of allowing the government access justify the means in which the government is going about gaining access to a secure iPhone? This is the ethical issue that should be debated going forward.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 1, 2016. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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