A major ethical dilemma: national security versus personal privacy and data security

What do you think Apple should do?

Making ethical choices and ethical decisions is clearly crucial to achieve an ethical outcome. Indeed, the choice between good or right versus bad or wrong is a defining feature of ethics. Ethics can therefore be viewed as a “choice with consequences”, given that those choices or decisions will shape whether the resulting behaviour or action is ethical or unethical. This is being played out with really high stakes in the case brought by the FBI against Apple, that has resulted in US Magistrate Sheri Pym, of the US District Court for the Central District of California, ordering Apple to assist the US Government in unlocking the iPhone of one of the shooters in the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attack on 2 December 2015.

But Apple has refused and is taking the matter on appeal.

Given that this represents one of the most serious future ethical dilemmas of our technology-driven era, we invite your views about which side you support and which argument you consider most important.

Ethically, this represents a very complex case. Having to make a decision about a clear right versus wrong situation is generally quite straightforward. But this is a much more complicated situation because it represents a right versus right choice. Right versus right decisions and choices focus on circumstances that entail two desirable but mutually incompatible “rights”. This can occur in many forms:

  • as a conflict between two ways of resolving a problem, where each option represents a right thing to do;
  • as valid competing interests, such as from different stakeholder groups;
  • as a clash between personal values and consistency with company policies;
  • or, as in this case, as a conflict between national security and personal privacy, which pits the security interests of the broader community/citizens against the privacy rights of the individual and data security.

This scenario poses two particular challenges: what is the right choice between two right options and, crucially, who decides what is right. History has noteworthy lessons about the results of who defines what is right. The negative examples loom large: Many dictatorial leaders – Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and others – absolutely believed they knew what was right and their actions, in following suit, had hugely destructive consequences.

The case against Apple stems from an attack at a social services facility in San Bernardino, California on 2 December 2015 that killed 14 people and wounded at least 20. The incident culminated in a shootout that left the two suspects dead. US authorities are in possession of an iPhone that belonged to one of the shooters, but the FBI is unable to access the encrypted device. Apple’s refusal to help “unlock” the iPhone escalated the matter to court and led to Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym issuing her order on Tuesday afternoon 16 February 2016 compelling Apple to do so.

Timothy Cook, the chief executive at Apple, immediately responded with a 1,100-word letter to Apple customers, warning of the “chilling” breach of privacy posed by the government’s demands. He maintained that the order would effectively require the company to create a “backdoor” to get around its own safeguards - “The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe.” - and he vowed that Apple would appeal the ruling.

The case has attracted much attention with strong proponents on both sides. Prosecutors stated in a court filing that Apple’s refusal “appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy” rather than a legal rationale, and Donald Trump has called for a boycott of the company. Supporting Apple, leading technology analysts, privacy experts and legislators warn that should Apple lose the case brought by the FBI, authoritarian governments will demand greater access to mobile data. The Guardian quotes Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a leading legislator on privacy and tech issues: “This move by the FBI could snowball around the world. Why in the world would our government want to give repressive regimes in Russia and China a blueprint for forcing American companies to create a backdoor.”

This case reflects a classic ethical dilemma to which there is no easy “right” answer. However, the consequences of this decision are likely to be very significant, not least because of the pervasive nature of mobile technology and Apple’s global presence.

We invite our readers to contribute their opinions on this case: What you think should happen – and why? What would you decide if the decision was yours?

by Cynthia Schoeman