Three years ago, Edward Snowden made defying government mass surveillance a cause celebre. Ever since, tech companies have been in the vanguard of those championing this cause.
From day one, however, I’ve been decrying their hypocrisy and the ignorance of their customers. This excerpt from a June 2013 column is illustrative.
“Americans complaining about the government spying on them is rather like Kim Kardashian complaining about the paparazzi taking pictures of her…In this Information Age, tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, and WikiLeaks are masters of the universe. But they have created a schizophrenic human species – whose members share everything about everything, yet claim to be zealous about their privacy.
“Only this explains the growing national outrage over the government’s National Security Agency (NSA) monitoring their promiscuous and indiscriminate digital companies to spy on them to sell them stuff –but not okay for the NSA to do so to keep them safe.
“…(Americans) blithely give up truly sensitive personal information for the convenience of buying stuff with credit cards…records collected from such transactions make the generic phone records the NSA collects seem even less intrusive than a traffic cop’s speed gun.
“All we need is for terrorists to pull off another 9/11. The same people venting outrage about government surveillance today will be venting ever greater outrage over the government’s failure to monitor the footprints of those terrorists (i.e., connecting the dots).”
There’s a difference
It’s one thing for tech companies to exploit the ignorance of their customers to sell them stuff. It’s quite another for them to defy a court order to help the government keep their customers safe. Yet this is the incomprehensible and untenable defiance Apple is mounting as if its corporate life depends on it.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion seeking to compel Apple Inc. to comply with a judge’s order to unlock the encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters. Apple had previously refused to comply with the order, with Apple CEO Tim Cook saying the company refused to ‘hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers.”
Unsurprisingly, other tech companies are supporting Apple; its defiance furthers their commercial interests. But it is utterly stupefying that ordinary folks are doing so too. After all, judges routinely sign warrants which force us to open our homes for all kinds of searches and seizures. They sign similar warrants to force us to even give hair and blood samples.
Therefore, Apple must believe that its customers’ iPhones are more inviolate than their homes, even their bodies. Only this belief explains its defiance.
Never mind the schizophrenic premise upon which it is based: namely, that people who use iPhones to share everything about their private lives want Apple to protect their privacy.
Privacy for profit
Meanwhile, Apple’s compliance with the Chinese government makes a mockery of its defiance against the American government. Not least because this betrays the fact that Apple is all too willing to sacrifice customer privacy for corporate profit.
According to the London Daily Mail newspaper, “Detractors of Apple’s decision…have questioned why, if the company feels it must protect ‘the security of its customers,’ it apparently complied with the Chinese government’s demand to show it secret data one year ago…(when) Apple agreed to let the Chinese government perform ‘security checks’ to confirm that there were no ‘backdoors’ that might let the U.S. government read Chinese citizens’ data. The country had threatened Apple’s access to the Chinese market.”
Apple is merely doing what other tech companies have done. I decried their hypocrisy in a 2006 column in which I praised Google for defying the Bush administration’s demand for information about the Internet searches and surfing habits of its customers. Soon thereafter, Google agreed to help China’s totalitarian government spy on and censor its citizens’ use of the Internet in exchange for market access.
Hypocritical and absurd
The point is that U.S. tech companies have been helping the totalitarian Chinese government invade the privacy of everyone in China for years. Yet they would have you believe that – in refusing to help the democratic American government invade the privacy of one dead terrorist – Apple is standing on sound corporate principle. This should strike even stupid Americans as not only hypocritical but patently absurd.
To be fair, Apple is arguing that if it complies in this case, the government might force it to develop code to unlock every iPhone ever sold; further, that terrorists might hack this code. But this smacks of the specious, immoral, slippery-slope argument Swiss bankers once used to keep private the accounts of Nazi swindlers and nacrotraffickers.
Apple defying the government in this fashion is no more hypocritical and absurd than Edward Snowden complaining about U.S. mass surveillance while hiding out in Russia. After all, mass surveillance in Russia rivals what Apple helps government officials execute in China.
Trump is right
It gives me pause that buffoonish Donald Trump proposed the only meaningful way Apple’s customers can react to its defiance: they can boycott Apple products. Granted, Trump’s presidential campaign seems like little more than an organized version of the drug-induced meltdown Charlie Sheen acted out on TV a few years ago. Still, I agree with Trump.
Alas, for most people, boycotting would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Indeed, late-breaking news is that its customers, for whom Apple can do no wrong, are organizing protests in cities throughout the United States. They intend to protest what they see as government persecution of Apple. Nincompoops!
This is why, given its willful failure to obey this court order, the only hope is for the judge to impose a fine for contempt that makes even Apple hurt where it counts.
Anthony L. Hall is a Bahamian native with an international law practice in Washington, D.C. Read his columns and daily weblog at www.theipinionsjournal.com.