In its fight with the FBI, Apple insists it’s defending the privacy and safety of all iPhone users by resisting government calls to help unlock an extremist’s iPhone. And now other big tech companies such as Google and Facebook are rallying to Apple’s side.
Wait just a minute: Aren’t those the same companies that Apple has previously criticized by lobbing veiled accusations that they exploit your personal information to sell ads and effectively endanger your privacy?
Some might argue that Apple’s allies are hypocrites when it comes to privacy, much like the fraternity brothers in “Animal House” who declared: “He can’t do that to our pledges. Only we can do that to our pledges.”
But Silicon Valley’s view of privacy is more nuanced than that. And Americans historically have worried less about the private sector and more about the government’s power to infringe on individual rights.
“The government can put me in jail,” said Larry Downs, a scholar at Georgetown University’s Center for Business and Public Policy. “Google, Facebook and Twitter cannot.” That makes the details of the iPhone case especially important.
The FBI says it’s only asking for narrow technical assistance in bypassing security features on a phone used by one of the shooters who killed 14 people in San Bernardino. “We couldn’t look the survivors in the eye if we did not follow this lead,” FBI Director James Comey said online.
Apple contends that a magistrate’s order would force it to create software that will make other iPhones vulnerable to future hacking by authorities and criminals. Leading tech companies including Google, Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft say they’ll file legal arguments in support of Apple’s position.
The same companies objected loudly after former government contractor Edward Snowden revealed the scope of National Security Agency surveillance programs that collected user data and even tapped their networks without their knowledge. The companies have gone to court and Congress to limit that kind of government data-gathering, while also fighting attempts to weaken the encryption codes that shield your messages from prying eyes.
Yet privacy advocates have long complained that those companies reap billions of dollars by collecting all kinds of personal information, including records of customers’ online behavior, and using it to target them for advertising.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has leveled jabs at his competitors, boasting that Apple doesn’t rely on ad revenue for most of its services. As he’s said more than once: “When an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.”
But even Apple collects some customer information. Experts say it’s not really clear if Apple’s privacy stance is a big selling point for most consumers.
Companies like Google and Facebook argue they take pains to protect the data they collect. Facebook, for example, tracks users’ likes and actions so the company can show them ads targeted to people with similar characteristics. But Facebook has said it doesn’t give advertisers access to information linked to any individual by name.
Internet companies do operate very differently from traditional data brokers such as credit bureaus, which make their money by selling all kinds of information on individuals – from their income and bill-paying history to where they’ve lived and worked.
“Google does not sell your personal information,” said Rachel Whetstone, then a senior vice president for the giant Internet company, in a speech last year. “Nor do we share it without your permission except in very limited circumstances,” such as when faced with a court-issued warrant. Like Facebook, Google says it pushes back against government requests that seem unwarranted or over-broad.
By contrast with Google’s business, Whetstone said, government surveillance often involves data “collected for an entirely separate purpose,” usually from people who didn’t expect it would be seen by authorities. She said Google gives users the ability to limit the collection of their data.
Whetstone was speaking in Europe, where many national governments have strong privacy laws that restrict what businesses can do with individuals’ data. “The American view is we need protection from the government misusing information, rather than we need the government to protect us from other people misusing our information,” said Downs.
Still, some privacy advocates say the iPhone dispute underscores their worries about data collection.
Consumers should realize any information they give to companies could one day be sought by the government, said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“I’m glad these companies are coming together to support Apple,” she said. “It ultimately may raise some hard questions for them about how much information they need to collect, and how they secure it, and how long they keep it.”
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