Thursday 29 September 2016

Yes, crime is a price worth paying to protect our absolute privacy

Published 10/03/2016 | 02:30

Apple CEO Tim Cook. Photo: AP
Apple CEO Tim Cook. Photo: AP

If you thought that the battle between Apple and security agencies was a passing thing, think again. Tim Cook's stance against US, British and (likely in future) Chinese authorities on the issue of encryption and security is set to open up a wider debate about privacy versus security. And this debate will soon involve the issue of cameras in our homes.

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To recap on the Apple case, the iPhone of a domestic terrorist involved in the fatal shootings of 14 people was recovered by the FBI. The security agency wants Apple to provide a bypass to the phone's security system so it can examine the contents. Apple is refusing, saying that it could leave iPhones vulnerable to hacking.

Apple is also concerned that other governments, such as the Chinese administration, would use the case as a platform to get into iPhones in China 'on security grounds'.

While some cite passionate reasons to side with the FBI, the balance of sense has to be with Apple's position. At some point, citizens have a right to absolute privacy in their communications. And that goes with all of the ugly hazards that can occur behind closed doors. It includes the risk of crimes being committed.

To put it another way, most people would object to the state putting cameras into everybody's home for possible future evidence collection, even in the midst of crimes such as physical domestic abuse or terrorist conspiracies.

And lest you think I'm reaching for a far-fetched comparison, we're a lot closer to subpoenas for in-home cameras than you think.

Technically, there are now multiple gadgets in our houses that do something close to the same thing as in-home cameras. Anyone with a Nest smart thermometer, for example, has lots of data about them stored. Samsung is about to launch a smart fridge here that photographs the contents of the chilled shelves.

Then there are products on the way, such as Amazon's Echo, a device that can regulate systems in your house using your voice control.

All of these gadgets will soon host a lot of data that could shed light on legal cases brought against citizens. These could range from domestic abuse situations (with recorded raised voices becoming pertinent) to certain explosive substances that need to be refrigerated.

So the rise of 'smart home' gadgets will soon bring the spectre of state oversight out of the realms of science fiction and into plausible evidentiary processes.

Which side will you be on?

The one that says that those who are innocent will have nothing to fear?

Or the one drawing a red line around some facets of absolute privacy?

This is one interpretation of what Apple's fight with the FBI may really be about.

And right now, I think I know which side I am on.

It may sound crude, but there is a level of potential criminality and disruption that society must be willing to stomach to preserve basic freedoms such as privacy.

This is not a facile, easy stance. It comes with the knowledge that injustices will happen. Crimes will go unsolved.

But we surely have to draw the line somewhere. There will always be fringe cases that support ever-deeper state surveillance in our lives. And it seems lacking in humanity to tell the families of the 14 people who lost their lives at the San Bernardino massacre that protecting the contents of the iPhone is more important than letting police examine it to help investigate further.

But hard cases make hard law. If we start accepting the state's absolute right to poke around in our thoughts and conversations (through our phones) as they like, we will have lost a crucial basic right.

We have already conceded that metadata such as geographic location information of phones or messages, might be examinable in criminal cases. We have also largely accepted the compromise of CCTV in our cities and towns, as a balanced deterrent to crime and unlawful behaviour.

But these are not the same as a broad legal declaration that absolute privacy should be outlawed.

And even if that is not what is being overtly articulated in the Apple-FBI case, it is what will surely follow. The UK prime minister has already said as much and China is close behind.

Surely now is the time to think carefully about all of this.

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