Which do you trust more, Apple Inc. or the Federal Bureau of Investigation?
Both of these quintessentially American organizations are now at war over an iPhone that belonged to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the people who shot up a holiday party in San Bernadino, Calif., in 2015, killing 14 people and injuring 22 others. He was later killed in a shootout along with his accomplice and wife, Tashfeen Malik. The FBI now wants Apple to help its agents gain access to the data on Mr. Farook's iPhone. Apple is refusing, saying it would set a terrible legal precedent and lead to all sorts of privacy violations.
Both sides, at least implicitly, seem to agree this is a public policy issue born of our digital age, one with far-reaching ramifications. The decision is too important to be settled without a full examination of the broader issues.
It's a complicated matter, and it also lacks the urgency of the "ticking time bomb" scenario, where theorists suggest authorities could sidestep conventional morality – by, say, torturing a suspect – in order to prevent a looming catastrophe. In this specific case, both of the assailants are dead, and no one – not even the FBI – is sure that cracking into the killer's phone would yield anything useful.
For the FBI, the matter is simple. Mr. Farook is responsible for a massacre, and the agency is now in possession of his phone. Some in the FBI believe he was radicalized (though that's not clear), and suspect his phone could help their case. "Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists," FBI director James Comey wrote in a recent opinion piece. "Maybe it doesn't. But we can't look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don't follow this lead."
To many, that would seem fair, even if tech companies have traditionally avoided giving in on privacy issues – going to court, as Yahoo once did, to prevent the father of a young soldier killed in Iraq from getting access to his son's e-mail account.
But what the FBI is asking for in this case is still rather extraordinary. They want Apple's engineers to build a customized operating system that can be installed on the phone that would allow the FBI to use software to guess Mr. Farook's password and get access to his data.
It's precisely that sort of "back door" that many technology companies fear. And Apple, which suggests the software could be used to access data on other iPhones, has not taken the FBI's request lightly. Apple says it's the thin edge of the wedge, and that other law enforcement agencies would come forward with yet more iPhones, should the FBI win its case. It has also hinted darkly of precedents, and being forced in the future to insert other surveillance software on people's iPhones. The company now has an FAQ section on its site laying out its position, and its chief executive officer Tim Cook wrote an open letter to its customers laying out its case in admirable clarity.
But at least one question ("The government says your objection appears to be based on concern for your business model and marketing strategy. Is that true?") and answer ("Absolutely not. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is and always has been about our customers.") is at least a tad disingenuous.
As BlackBerry argued in its battles to resist Pakistan and other governments trying to gain access to its customers' encrypted data, there are technical limitations to handing over data – but there are also serious consequences for the public perception of one's platform and devices.
Apple has done a lot over the years to increase its market share among security-conscious corporate customers, mainly at BlackBerry's expense. The iPhone is now a perfectly legitimate device for corporate leaders and politicians.
Apple, which has built a mystique around its products over the years with sophisticated marketing, is not about to give any ground now, especially when many Americans distrust their government's security services' constant overreach – a distrust shared by many of the same enthusiasts who buy Apple's products.
The only hope here is that the government will strike a neutral committee of experts to study the issue and lay down a set of sensible guidelines – ones that respect users' justifiable assumption of privacy, but that do not remain inflexible when much of what terrorists communicate is online. A congressional committee hearing into the matter risks degenerating into a political point-scoring sideshow, but the subject – establishing the right balance between privacy rights and law enforcement – deserves to be exposed to the full force of America's democratic system.
Die-hard privacy advocates, as well as die-hard tough-on-crime types, may not like the eventual conclusions. But this is the only slice of common ground shared by Mr. Comey and Mr. Cook, though they obviously differ on this particular case.
Lucky for everyone else, it's a common ground that's not overly disagreeable.