Apple’s decision to fight a court order to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the terrorists involved in the San Bernardino, California, attack last year is just the latest example of the dangerous divide between Washington and Silicon Valley.
The FBI was unable to access the encrypted smartphone to map the terrorist’s connections to ISIS and find any other accomplices in the United States, so the government sought help from the tech giant. While details of this specific phone are not known, the iPhone in general has built-in security features that will erase the phone’s data after a certain number of unsuccessful log-in attempts.
This case highlights how Washington needs the private sector in the fight against terrorism and how the private sector still has to work through questions about the effect to its business when helping the government. We must find a way to bridge this gap so we can protect both our citizens and the economic interests of our technology sector while adhering to our founding principles.
In rejecting the court order, Apple CEO Tim Cook stated, “We have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help,” adding, “but now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create.”
What is truly dangerous is the divide between our security needs and the economic interests of industry.
It is time for Washington and Silicon Valley to realize that it is to their benefit to get along and work together on shared interests. Bridging this gap is not just an exercise in overcoming differences; it is critical for America’s continued international competitiveness, economic growth and national security. The U.S. economy will not grow if the nation is unable to protect its assets.
For example, everyone can agree that preventing hackers from infiltrating networks to steal intellectual property or personal information is imperative. No one is going to argue against stopping terrorists from recruiting online and hiding other activities on the Internet. The government and private sector must become more closely aligned if we are to continue to protect our country from growing threats in an increasingly technological world.
Similarly, encryption advocates have a strong case; as encryption is necessary to protect political dissidents in authoritarian countries and civil liberties for everyone. The American people and the business sector clearly need reassurances that their data will be protected from illegal intrusions, whether from digital theft by criminals or unwarranted access by government officials. Privacy and security are not mutually exclusive, nor are the aims of business and government. There are, or should be, legal mechanisms to provide for both.
Sadly, the debate has reached a stalemate with each side retreating behind their ramparts and raising their drawbridges. It has been less of a dialogue than one side “talking at” the other, issuing demands or expectations without offering much in return.
The current struggle between the FBI and Apple is a clear example of how this distrust is becoming a vicious cycle. By turning to court orders to compel Apple’s cooperation, the FBI is perpetuating Silicon Valley perceptions of the government as a heavy-handed bully. But by refusing to comply, Apple is making it more likely that Congress will resort to the very sort of blunt force regulation that the technology industry fears the most.
It will take time for the government and Silicon Valley to find an agreeable balance, but it can be done.
An alignment of interests can be found if both are able to sit down and engage in a meaningful dialogue that seeks to resolve challenges rather than impose the will of one over the other. By working for a basic set of principles, from the broad to the specific, we should be able to find avenues of alignment within the privacy and security debate.
Washington and Silicon Valley need to get along to navigate the shoals of government and economic interests to ensure they don’t collide but rather find a mutually beneficial way forward.
Otherwise, the growing divide between the government and technology industry may become an unbridgeable chasm between the East and West coasts. And that would unnecessarily endanger both the security and prosperity of our country.