Chalk one up for nobody.

Now that the Justice Department has unlocked the phone of Syed Rizwan Farook, a gunman in the December shooting in San Bernardino, California, who killed 14 people, the legal effort to force Apple to unlock the phone has ended. And so we all lived happily ever after.

Except the victims.

Except Apple.

Except the FBI.

Except us.

The victims are still the victims—the ones slain and their surviving family members and friends. This may very well be a moral victory of sorts, but unless the information divulges a string of terrorist cells that can then be shut down or eradicated, I doubt if poking around inside that little box is going to accomplish anything more than upsetting Siri.

Second, the iPhone is apparently not so secure as everyone thought, leaving its users a little less confident than they were before, especially those who use the device for banking or credit card purchases or anything else that leaves a trail of confidential information. I myself don’t use my cellphone for those transactions, but I’m in the minority.

Third, the FBI, no longer required to drive this case to a conclusion, finds itself in a kind of limbo—no better or worse off now than it was before. Until the next big case comes along, the agency’s hands remain tied…or…it remains unable to access our private information on the slightest whim: take your choice.

And finally there’s Desmond Crawford. It seems Mr. Crawford, a member of a Boston gang, is alleged to have murdered a rival, and the FBI has requested that Apple unlock Mr. Crawford’s phone—it’s apparently a newer model with advanced security features. At least one expert believes it’s “hackable,” but that it may take longer to break through. Also law enforcement officials in New York, Los Angeles, and other jurisdictions have hundreds of locked iPhones to which they want access. That “one special extreme case” argument seems to be fading, and with it I’m afraid, our privacy.

A month ago the party line was—just let us open this phone and we won’t bother you any more. It almost seemed reasonable given the horrific tragedy that engendered the request. Now here we are, three months after the shooting, and there are hundreds of similar requests. At least officially there are hundreds—I don’t think it’s any stretch to claim that there tens of thousands waiting to be made, many for relatively minor crimes.

As some wag once said—I’m not paranoid, and neither are all the people out to get me. But it doesn’t take paranoia to recognize what’s coming; and while some of the presidential candidates ramp up the fear among us, we’ll soon enough reach the point where we can no longer discern the difference between security and overstepping. I’m not sure I can either, and we shouldn’t be ignorant or obdurate in the face of today’s dangers; but we should at least be reluctant to cede any more of our privacy with little more than a shrug.


2 Replies to “Chalk one up for nobody.”

  1. Nothing digital is secure anymore, is it? One bright light is that many of my 12th grade students (dozens) were outraged once they heard that the FBI was trying to force Apple to unlock the iPhone. Yes, some young people understand the importance of civil liberties. BTW, I had to look up obdurate…

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