The False Choice at the Core of the Apple-FBI Standoff


Mar 21, 2016

An NYPD officer stands across the street from the Apple Store on 5th Ave. in New York, March 11, 2016

An NYPD officer stands across the street from the Apple Store on 5th Ave. in New York, March 11, 2016

Photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on March 21, 2016.

The standoff between Apple and the FBI has been going on for a few weeks but it has been simmering for a great deal longer. While the focal point of this debate has been the government's attempt to compel Apple to unlock an iPhone tied to the San Bernardino County attacks—in essence to develop a backdoor creating an inherent vulnerability—the issue is far weightier than what happens to this single device.

In a very real sense, the results of this case and the accompanying dialogue represent an important skirmish in a much longer and more important conflict in which neither of the polar extremes can be allowed to dominate outright. At its core, the question comes down the issue of privacy versus security, where important compromises must be made to ensure that neither absolute privacy nor absolute security prevail. But in resolving this issue, the dialogue must not be allowed to devolve into a false dichotomy between two extremes, neither of which will satisfy the demands for security or privacy in a free and open society.

Apple's case, as espoused by CEO Tim Cook, is based on wanting to protect the privacy of iPhone users, coupled with not wanting the government to be able to compel the company to develop insecurity in its device. Apple has been joined in this battle by fellow tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft. The concerns expressed by the technology companies somewhat misleadingly imply that securing the terminal device—in this case the iPhone—will substantially increase one's security, when in reality most insecurities are caused by an individual's online behavior, such as becoming the victim of a phishing attack, which make up about 90 percent of cyberattacks.

The FBI's case, while focused on the San Bernardino's shooter's phone, really comes down to the question of whether technology should have backdoors that allow for interrogation of electronic devices after obtaining proper legal authority. The outcome of this case has serious implications for the long-term ability of law enforcement to deter criminal and terrorist behavior, conduct investigations and secure prosecutions and protect United States citizens at home and abroad.

An important backdrop for the current debate is the perceived excess associated with the global surveillance program exposed in the Snowden classified information release from the U.S. National Security Agency in 2013, which has heightened sensitivity regarding privacy issues. To increase the intrigue, some—including former CIA contractor Edward Snowden—have claimed that the FBI already has the capacity to unlock the phone, but that the agency wants to drive home the point that law enforcement must have the capacity to access technology given appropriate legal authority....

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Daniel M. Gerstein works at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He was the former Under Secretary (Acting) and Deputy Under Secretary in the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security from 2011 to 2014.

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