Last February, the FBI went up against Apple in a lawsuit involving encryption matters. Following the previous December’s shootings in San Bernardino, the FBI requested that Apple create software to unlock an iPhone that had belonged to one of the attackers. Apple declined, claiming that doing so would be a violation of civil rights.
In more recent news, an Arkansas prosecutor demanded that Amazon access information from a suspect’s Amazon Echo speaker this past month. James Bates is under investigation for the murder of Victor Collins, whose body was found in Bates’ hot tub in November of 2015. The two were allegedly hanging out at Bates’ with another friend, and streaming music through Echo. Amazon’s speaker could supply relevant information, as Echo records users’ conversations with Alexa. However, like Apple, Amazon declined to break into Bates’ speaker for privacy reasons.
Tech and privacy have an uneasy relationship
So, should tech companies violate customers’ privacy in legal situations? Our devices are part of our everyday lives—they hold tons of information about our whereabouts, conversations, and inquiries. Hacking into an Echo could determine whether Bates is guilty. Unlocking an iPhone could tell us more about a shooter’s intentions than any witness or close friend could. But what about our fundamental rights?
Privacy is a huge issue when it comes to tech use. Many are uncomfortable with the concept of being watched and recorded. On the other side of the spectrum, many argue that they don’t have anything to hide. For most of us, the worst a federal investigation of our devices would reveal is ordering pizza five nights in a row. Why worry about privacy if you’re not doing anything bad?
Glenn Greenwald discusses this argument in this excellent TedTalk. The idea is that the possibility of being watched causes people to censor themselves, not the knowledge of being monitored at all times. Of course, we shouldn’t be planning murders or scandalous heists regardless. However, “bad” behavior isn’t always so blatantly bad. Speaking critically of one’s government in one nation, for example, could be equally as punishable as a recorded homicide in another. Whether or not you have anything to hide depends on who’s in power, what laws are on the books – and who’s interpreting those laws. Besides, there’s now pretty ample evidence that most – if not all – Americans are breaking the law almost all the time. They just don’t know it because there are so many laws on the books.
This is why Apple refused to design new encryption software for the 2016 case. The risk of that kind of invasive technology falling into the wrong hands is too high. Additionally, the fact that such a technology exists would be enough to sway many distrusting customers.
As devices like iPhones and AI speakers become more prominent in people’s everyday lives, they could become even more important in criminal investigation. Under the All Writs Act, the government can issue any order necessary to aid jurisdiction, so long as there are no other options. The FBI might have been able to force Apple to comply under this act, but found third-party assistance right before the hearing. The Amazon case has yet to be resolved.
For now, it’s good to know that Apple and Amazon are taking users’ privacy concerns to heart.