Apple vs. Feds: Is iPhone Privacy a Basic Human Right?
By: Sambit Rath
Privacy is fundamental for a human to live a dignified life. As a concept, it has evolved over the years, thanks to the collective efforts of the society to build a boundary separating private life from the State. But more often than not, the State has used its higher powers to circumvent the boundaries set by law for purposes both good and bad. With the advancement of technology, borders both physical and non-physical have become less visible, thereby making it far more easier to breach one’s privacy. With such power, anyone could conduct nefarious activities for personal gain, and this is where the State jumps in. The state being a protector of rights, has the responsibility of ensuring tighter security for its citizens. This cannot be done by making privacy an absolute right. At times, the balance between privacy and security must be tweaked in order to restore justice. This was the crux of the whole Apple vs. Feds issue that has been the subject of this case study.
Need for this Study
With Tim Cook as the boss of Apple, his decision making and rationale behind them during the tussle with the authorities becomes a rather essential case for entrepreneurs to read and learn from. Although it is an example of a tech company, entrepreneurs from every industry these days need to be upfront with their societal and ethical responsibilities when it comes to issues like privacy. Every company that has a consumer base must adhere to the existing norms of privacy protection, and at times aim to inculcate the ‘best’ practices to set an example for companies to follow. The attitude of the head of the company determines its path and this is what needs to be learnt from Tim Cook’s fight to protect his company’s values.
Cook had been vocal about his views on the latest social issues and the challenges faced by powerless people. The background of the case begins with the leak of information by Edward Snowden, that indicated an extensive US government surveillance program which aimed at collecting private customer data. This led to an exodus of consumers and businesses away from the US tech companies, with the estimated loss amounting to $35 billion.
Meanwhile an increase in the number of cybercrimes forced authorities to demand access to iPhones. The phone was popular for its extra privacy that was further upgraded with the launch of iOS 8 operating system which was in response to the demands of the authorities. The move basically made consumer the sole owner of data and removed Apple from the middle. It intended to make authorities seize user data by direct means, if possible. “If law enforcement wants something, they should go to the user and get it. It’s not for me to do that,” Cook explained at the time. But it did not end there as law enforcement agencies mandated tech companies to provide a backdoor into suspects’ phones.
This was further aggravated by the December 2015 public firing incident that led to death of 14 people. One of the suspects carried an iPhone and was thus necessary for the law enforcement agencies to see its contents. A judge ordered Apple to build a decryption software to unlock the phone, but they refused to comply with the order. But as strong of a stance Cook took in the US, the same was difficult in countries with questionable reputation on fundamental rights. The Chinese government in 2017 cracked down on unlicensed virtual private network apps and asked Apple to take them off the app store. Apple had to comply in order to protect its business.
This has been the trend ever since and Apple is not alone. In 2021, Facebook and Google received more than 100,000 requests for data access and complied with the requests 80% of the time. These companies operate differently as their services depend on user data. On the other hand, Apple has no use of data analytics. Thus, the requests received by Apple (7,122 by first half of 2021) was far lesser that Google and Facebook. But Apple complied with 90% of the requests, which is higher than the other companies. Not only that, software experts have raised concerns about privacy risks posed by iCloud and other services of Apple.
Owing to the tensions between the company and the authorities, people have started leaning more towards the side of the authorities, thanks to their better messaging strategies. This is evidenced by the poll results of Pew Research, that showed 51% of Americans thought Apple should assist the FBI investigation.
The case study seeks to achieve its primary objective of analyzing the case at hand to identify traits that leaders must possess to effectively deal with social and ethical issues. The specific objectives include:
- To understand the debate of “Privacy vs. Security”.
- To determine companies’ liability and responsibility while dealing with social and ethical issues as per the law.
- To understand how taking a stance against the mighty proves fruitful for the company.
- To ascertain the qualities that a leader must possess to protect the company’s values.
- To understand the real-life expectations and limitations of such actions.
- Is it necessary for a leader to delve into social and ethical issues by putting the company at risk?
- Whether it is possible to strike a balance between social and legal responsibilities?
The method of research would be secondary. The case study would be done with the help of secondary sources available online like, articles, papers, and videos.