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FBI vs. Apple: Finding the Right Balance Between Technology and Security

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The standoff this past week between the U.S. government and the global tech behemoth Apple underscores an enduring condition of our age: Technological innovation is at once a powerful tool to enhance our security, but maximizing its consumer benefits requires resisting government regulation and control. The private sector and government will have to find a more satisfactory partnership if they are to achieve the necessary but difficult balance that entails.

The fascinating struggle between the U.S. national security establishment and Apple over unlocking the cellphone of Syed Rizwan Farook—the San Bernadino, California, terrorist—captures many of the dilemmas of the fraught relationship between government and private-sector innovators. The U.S. government, the FBI in particular, believes that Farook’s cellphone may contain information that could help prevent another terrorist attack in the United States. Therefore, it argues, the company has an obligation to override its own protocols to provide that critical information. It resorted to filing a suit against Apple last week, after months of trying to reach a voluntary agreement. The company sees its primary responsibility as serving its customers and its shareholders. It does not want to compromise the privacy assurances it has provided that have made its products so desirable in the global marketplace.

The media coverage suggests the dispute has been a real standoff, with Apple unwilling to cooperate. Hopefully, however, there is a back story where reasonable officials on both sides are working to find a compromise, as the long legal delays in resolving the issue will increase the security risk the FBI is trying to reduce. But the story is only one of many examples where recent technological innovations birthed in the consumer-driven business world can be used by government for its functions, and abused by nonstate actors with violent or other disruptive purpose. Who decides what’s good for the citizen and the consumer, and how to manage tradeoffs between the competing interests?

In the 20th century, many of the innovations we now take for granted as consumers came from research laboratories belonging to governments. The best example is the Internet, originally intended to facilitate communications among defense researchers in government and academia, and to permit government-funded research to be shared easily. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded its development, as well as the precursors to the Global Positioning System. Both the Internet and GPS have transformed modern life as we know it, but they started as much narrower, government-directed activity.

Who decides what’s good for the citizen and the consumer, and how to manage tradeoffs between the competing interests?

Today most innovation starts outside of government. Private capital makes the big gambles on the future, sometimes with some seed money from government. The 1990s competition to map the human genome was a unique story of parallel efforts in government and in business. Guess who completed the project first? Big national security agencies now often scramble to catch up to the private sector, to procure new communications products and adapt them for more restricted government use. This has created a very different power balance between the public and private domains in the United States, compared to the last century.

In other parts of the world, the business-government model plays out differently. Governments in many European countries, for example, still own or direct major infrastructure facilities and natural resource development and exploitation. In the U.K. and France, for example, the national airlines have been partially privatized after many decades of government ownership. Norway owns and manages its oil resources, and has created the most successful sovereign wealth fund to distribute the benefits of oil wealth to all citizens. In general, the capacity of the state in Europe and in most of Asia stands in contrast to how these issues are addressed in the U.S. system.

The United States embraces its capitalist culture that rewards entrepreneurship, but the relationship becomes contested when consumer products turn out to have national security value or consequence. Companies and the great innovators who are seen as heros of American society, such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, are fiercely protective of their independence. Their mistrust of government and its tendency to over-regulate resonates with publics who clearly see, in this campaign year, government as an obstacle to, rather than an enabler of, the good life. These dynamics may reinforce Apple’s desire to hold the line on the cellphone issue.

But surely the safety and security of citizens is a paramount concern these days, and communities and individuals still want government to perform its security role competently. FBI Director James Comey draws on these elemental feelings when describing his agency’s request to Apple as being “about the victims and justice,” and he emphasizes that it is a selective request based on a specific warrant, rather than an attempt to obtain open-ended access to private communications.

The need to offer that kind of assurance speaks to the fact that there is an absence of trust in these interactions, based on some of the excesses of the post-9/11 period. But the intelligence community and the law enforcement world are doing their best to strike the right balance between the enduring values of privacy and freedom with the pressure to prevent and disrupt terrorist acts.

In a similar vein, Michael Hayden, who served as director of both the CIA and the NSA, is trying to strike the right balance in his analysis of U.S. policy on drones, another great example of a technology—though one that is over a century old—where there are serious debates about how to balance the national security imperative with other interests. Hayden calls for a dial, not a switch, in setting policy on their use.  

It’s an image that’s useful for other technologies too. Government and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs should not see their interaction as a zero-sum game, with a switch either permitting or shutting down a particular activity. It’s a dial that has to be adjusted from time to time, to address unanticipated and acute needs. Government needs to have the discipline to not overreach, with robust oversight in place to prevent it from doing so when its self-restraint fails. For its part, private-sector leaders need to bend a bit to contribute to an overall security environment in which their remarkable achievements can flourish.

Ellen Laipson served as president and chief executive officer of the Stimson Center from 2002 to October 2015. She now is president emeritus and distinguished fellow. Her WPR column, Measured Response, appears every Tuesday.

This piece originally ran in World Politics Review, February 23, 2016

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