Feb 02, 2017 | By

What Are You Afraid of? — When Public Interest Clashes With Personal Privacy (Part 1)

In 2016, two high profile police investigations triggered major fights over privacy with two of the world’s biggest tech companies, Apple and Amazon.  In both cases, one a terrorist attack, the other a murder, investigators requested access to data from digital devices potentially relevant to the investigation.  The Tech companies refused the court orders secured by investigators on grounds that this was an undue intrusion into personal privacy.  There’s a lot going on here, and it’s worth taking a closer look. ​​

The San Bernadino Terror Attack – FBI v. Apple

On December 2, 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured in a terrorist shooting at a County training event and Christmas party in San Bernardino, California. The perpetrators, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple living in Redlands, were pursued and killed four hours later.  During the subsequent FBI investigation, the FBI was unable to open Farook’s iPhone 5C due to its security features, and asked Apple Company for help.  Apple declined due to its policy to never undermine the security features of its products, and the FBI then secured a court order, which Apple contested vigorously. The FBI dropped the request when it was able to gain access to the phone independently.  (See: Wikipedia Summary)

The Bentonville Murder – Local Police v. Amazon

On the evening of November 21, 2015, friends gathered at the home of James Bates in Bentonville, Arkansas.  The following morning, Bates called 911 to report that one friend, Victor Collins, was dead in the hot tub.  Investigators ruled that the death was due to strangulation, and Bates was later charged with the murder.  Bates’ home was outfitted with a smart water meter, and the local water utility provided usage data to the police indicating a large volume of water had been used on premises that night, verifying the physical evidence indicating that the area of the hot tub had been washed.  The house also had an Amazon Echo device (aka Alexa) that responds to voice commands, and the police obtained a court order requesting data the device may have recorded or transmitted to Amazon servers.  Amazon refused, indicating that the request was “overbroad or otherwise inappropriate.”  According to Bates’ lawyers, the suspect is innocent, but they objected to the request as an invasion of their client’s privacy. (see: CNN Story)

The Tech Industry Argument for Privacy

The tech industry has vigorously defended Apple’s position, arguing that such a Court order, applied more broadly, “will harm Americans’ security in the long run.”  Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, has said they embrace technology that would make it difficult for government officials to access any personal information on its devices, even when those authorities have a warrant.  Tim Cook, Apple CEO, said that writing software to open the iPhone “we view as the sort of software equivalent of cancer,” and claimed “it’s not just about privacy, it’s about public safety.”  In the Apple case, the FBI has argued to the contrary, claiming that Apple was choosing to prioritize its public relations strategy over a terrorism investigation.   (See ABC News Story; BusinessInsider Story).  Let’s take a deeper look at the issues of privacy.

The Morality of Privacy – Why do We Want Privacy Anyway

We all want to be able to live our lives free from compulsion, exclusion, intimidation and physical harm.  This is what “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” means.  Yet this does not imply, nor does the Constitution convey, a right of privacy. While it may sometimes be acceptable to say “none of your business,” that is not the case if you are planning or hiding a crime or reporting to the tax collector.  We live in a society and under a government with collective interests, and we thus have to give up some of our privacy.

There is also a difference, sometimes subtle, between “privacy” and “secrecy.”  Privacy is the idea that we have control over how and to whom we provide certain information about ourselves.  Secrecy implies that we are denying others access to information that is important and relevant to them.  We generally do not want our neighbors to know about our family finances because we don’t want to provoke envy, pity or gossip! But they would be very interested to know if we were building bombs in the basement.

Secrecy is necessary if you are planning a surprise birthday party, or if you are trying to protect yourself or someone else from compulsion, exclusion, intimidation or physical harm.  Often, secrecy is just hiding things to protect your reputation. Sometimes it is to hide conspiracies and malfeasance.  The morality of privacy, then, depends on exactly what you are trying to hide, and why.

Spiritual Considerations on Privacy

One interesting finding of psychological research is that people tend to be nicer, and behave more morally, if they feel they are being watched.  As the title to an article in Scientific American (May 31, 2011) points out, “Even the Illusion of Being Observed Can Make You a Better Person.”  Researchers have also found that religious people tend to exhibit greater willpower and moral behavior (see posts on Baumeister and Wright), perhaps in large part to their belief in an omniscient God that is always watching our behaviors and our intentions.

The corollary is also true — if you believe that no-one is watching and that you will not get caught, you are more likely to lie, cheat or steal.  A feeling of privacy makes us more vulnerable to those spiritual temptations.

One of the most insidious spiritual temptations is the tendency we have to hide our selfish motivations, often by rationalizing an otherwise unacceptable behavior.  At the extreme, this takes the form of ex-post rationalizing (see: Post-Truth), whereby we can successfully hide our deepest biases and selfish motivations — even from ourselves.   Often, the most vociferous of our virtuous protestations is simply a smokescreen for our deepest and most self-interested of desires.  As Shakespeare phrased it in his famous play Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”   Privacy, or the illusion of privacy, does little to enhance one’s spiritual maturity.

Next post — what does this mean for policy?

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