On December 2, 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured in a terrorist attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, which consisted of a mass shooting and an attempted bombing. The perpetrators, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a couple living in the city of Redlands, targeted a training event and holiday party organized by the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. About 80 employees had attended the event. Farook was an American-born U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, who worked as a health department employee. Malik was a Pakistani-born lawful permanent resident of the United States. It was later discovered that both Farook and Malik supported ISIS’s ideology and had been radicalized.
During its investigation of the San Bernardino mass shooting, the FBI collected the shooter’s iPhone, which is locked down so securely that the Bureau cannot get access in to see what is inside. Since the owner is dead, the government has requested Apple to open the device. In essence, the government wants Apple to build a backdoor to the iPhone. Specifically, the FBI wants Apple to make a new version of the iPhone’s operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the San Bernardino investigation. The software that Apple is being asked to create does not exist today, but in the wrong hands it would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession. Apple is refusing to create the software to open the phone stating that doing so would compromise the security of every iPhone everywhere.
The All Writs Act of 1789
The Government is using a 226-year-old law to order Apple to create the software. Rather than asking for legislative action through Congress, the FBI is proposing an unprecedented use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify an expansion of its authority. The Act states in part that: “[t]he Supreme Court and all courts established by Act of Congress may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.”
A Writ is a Court Order. The Act gives courts the authority to issue orders compelling individuals to do things, so long as it is for a legal and necessary reason. However, the All Writs Act, while very broad, is not all-powerful. The very ruling that orders Apple to help the FBI has a caveat of “unreasonable burden” that is part of the All Writs Act. In fact, to the extent that Apple believes that compliance with this Order would be unreasonably burdensome, it may make an application to the Court for relief. That is, Apple can petition the Court not to be compelled to produce the key to open the phone if it can show that doing so would be “unreasonably burdensome.”
Additionally, Apple’s will argue that if the government is utilizing the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock the iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept people’s messages, access health records or financial data, track locations, or even access people’s phone’s microphone or camera without their knowledge. Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter have all signed on to legal briefs supporting Apple in its court case.
History Repeats Itself
Post-9/11 domestic measures implemented in the name of national security included: restrictions on speech and assembly; increased government surveillance; diminished administrative and judicial oversight; new registration requirements and ongoing monitoring of non-citizens that could lead to arrest, detainment, loss of legal immigrant status, criminal charges, and deportation for failures to register; attempts to deport or hold indeﬁnitely non-citizens for minor or nonexistent immigration violations; secrecy about the names of people detained; use of asset forfeiture and other expanded governmental powers to obtain information, arrest, detain, and indict individuals for broadly deﬁned terrorism-related activities. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the United States government arrested and held over 1,000 individuals without ﬁling formal criminal charges against them.
In mid-December 2005, an article appeared on the front page of the New York Times chronicling widespread monitoring of telephonic and Internet communications by the National Security Agency (NSA). These intercepts, according to the authors of the article, occurred with the direct authorization of the President of the United States George H. Bush, and were undertaken without approval or oversight by the judiciary, beginning shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. This wide-ranging program targeted interception of email and telephone calls with the number of those targeted ranging from the hundreds to possibly thousands. On December 19, 2005, President George W. Bush confirmed that the government had secretly and purposefully launched a massive electronic surveillance and communications interception program.
It was subsequently revealed that the national Security Agency had conducted warrantless electronic surveillance before obtaining authorization or consent from the President and that domestic communications had also been intercepted without the usual legal safeguards. Moreover, the NSA did not act alone, it sought and obtained the assistance of various private communications companies, who permitted the NSA to directly access their systems to collect information. Finally, the NSA was discovered to have shared the information that it “illegally” obtained with other investigative agencies. In a 2011 New Yorker article, former NSA employee Bill Binney said that his colleagues told him that the NSA had begun storing billing and phone records from “everyone in the country.” The NSA’s wiretap program was ultimately found to be illegal and NSA surveillance has been since brought within the relevant laws.
In May 2004, the graphic display of photographs of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq after the United States’ invasion shocked the world. One observer noted, “[i]t was Saddam’s torture chamber, and now it’s ours.” The Abu Ghraib scandal was the last straw. Critics began more vociferous in their concerns about other measures that had been adopted post 9/11 that severely curtailed civil liberties such as the indeﬁnite detention of aliens. In a decision that was seen as a victory for champions of civil liberties, the Supreme Court spoke in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, and struck down the system of military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees established by the Bush Administration.
After 9/11 people’s outrage about the terrorist attacks fueled their willingness to give up many of their civil liberties in exchange for gaining some sense of personal security. Eventually, the infringement on civil liberties by the governments was such that an adjustment became necessary. The adjustment came mostly as a result of public outcry and people’s realization that despite the importance of personal security, a balance between waving their civil liberties and ensuring their safety was necessary.
Privacy and Security
A respect for the right to privacy and personal security are not mutually exclusive. With the appearance of new technologies that could potentially eliminate individual privacy, society is prompted to question whether privacy is such an essential human need as to make it sacred ground where governments are not allowed to enter unless we allow them to do so. The government’s ﬂawed arguments positing that the only way to offer protection is to infringe in our right to privacy have proven not been successful in the long term. In fact, the NSA surveillance program did not prevent later terrorist attacks in the US and elsewhere. The idea that there must be a tradeoff between privacy and security is false. Our willingness to sacriﬁce our privacy for our security has been short-lived and eventually, the tide has turned back by demand of the people.
With the Apple controversy, we as individuals must decide what matters most to us, to know that there are some areas in our lives that we can keep private, or to allow our government access to the key to intrude whenever they choose in our private lives? Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the U.N. human rights chief has stated that U.S. authorities “risk unlocking a Pandora’s Box” in their efforts to force Apple to create software to crack the security features on its phones. He has warned about the potential for “extremely damaging implications” on human rights, journalists, whistle-blowers, political dissidents and others.
Should Apple create a key to open the terrorist’s phone, do we trust the government to only use the software this one time? Did we learn anything from the NSA scandal? Do we not remember about the NSA’s indiscriminate domestic surveillance of regular citizens? The answers to these questions will determine the future of the right to privacy. The choice to open Pandora’s Box is ours.