Apple, the FBI and a case of techno-populism

Apple is publicizing its efforts to fight an FBI request to unlock the single telephone used in a crime. A federal judge last week ordered Apple to create new software and take others steps to retrieve data from the locked phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters in a terrorist attack in December 2015 in San Bernardino, California, who was killed in a gun battle with police. The FBI requested Apple that it create an alternative operating system for just that mobile device. It is true that there are another 175 telephones waiting to be broken into, but the bureau is not requesting sweeping access to the universe of Apple devices. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has come out in support of the government in this case, invoking the imperative of cooperating in the resolution of crimes such as the one at stake, that left 14 dead. Others in the Sillicon Valley, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Google chief Sundar Pichai, have backed Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, albeit in a much muted fashion. The FBI’s suggestions that Apple is turning the case into a marketing operation may have no merits. Yet this much is true: any publicly advertised move is bound to become, by its very nature, publicity. And Apple has cult following all over the world. It would not be unfair to think that the company may be banking on that. The tension between privacy and security is old in democratic societies. That’s why there are courts of law in a system that, however imperfect, affords more equal rights to all parties concerned than any other political order. Techno-populism has no place in this. Admiration earned for technological miracles does not afford privileges before the law, nor does it give a moral upper hand.

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