Ned O’Gorman writes: whatever privacy is, it has to be in Apple’s eye primarily an engineering problem. Apple’s privacy is an engineer’s construct, even conceit. Many everyday senses of privacy follow this very limited idea of “data on my device.” Though I’ve entered vital data online numerous times, I would be more likely to feel a violation of privacy at an “unauthorized” family member thumbing through the pictures on my phone than a stranger using my date of birth and social security number to secure fraudulent credit. There’s something about Apple’s sense of “personal data” that gels very well with our sense that the gadgets we carry with us are “personal devices” rather than nodes in a massive economic and technological system.
But what about privacy’s co-dependents, especially the “public”? Apple’s narrow and problematic sense of privacy, if Apple sticks to it and if it were made the rule among tech companies, could have major public consequences, reshaping our experience of public life. First of all, Apple is explicitly pitting a forensic good, a good having to do with public justice, against the protection of privacy, and it is doing so in an absolutist fashion that undermines the delicate balance between certain rights and justice so vital to public life (just as the NSA did, but in reverse fashion).
In the case of Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone, we are talking about a specific and targeted forensic investigation — exactly what critics of the NSA call for. It is quite plausible that the data on Farook’s phone may be critical in helping to forensically reconstruct the networks (if any) of which Farook was a part. The knowledge that would come out of such an investigation may not end up preventing another similar attack. Nevertheless, it represents an immediate public good both with respect to our sense of justice and to making sense of indiscriminate acts of political violence that are, in their very performance, meant to cripple or otherwise alarm the citizenry. My point here is simply that legally sanctioned and legitimate forensic police work represents a public good, and Apple is now pitting that good against the good of privacy — and privacy as Apple defines it. [Continue reading…]