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Apple vs. FBI: Much Ado About Nothing or a Temporary Truce?

Now that the FBI has magically cracked an iPhone used by San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook, the vitriol has calmed down in Apple’s very public battle in defense of privacy. Apple’s hardened stance in its 6 week defense against the FBI raises a broader question about the tension between commercial interests and public safety in modern free economies. While this heated skirmish appears to be over, the broader war between security and privacy is just beginning. On one extreme, privacy advocates treat the sanctity of digital identifiers and customer privacy as absolutes. On the other, security advocates treat public safety as an absolute. The truth lies somewhere in the middle and both public and private organizations are scrambling to find their footing amid increasingly blurred boundaries.

Privacy and security are not opposite ends of a spectrum in an interconnected and insecure world. Rather they are two equally important goals that must work in co-movement in order to maintain a safe, global and digitally-dependent economy. In short, the tug-o-war analogy between privacy and security belongs in a bygone era. A more apt description is two equally important objectives tethered by an elastic band. Under normal circumstances privacy and security lie at rest at opposite ends. Certain forces or conditions however may cause them to spring back together and even overlap. The terror attack in San Bernardino was such a case. However, tragically, the loss of 14 lives and serious injuries sustained by 22 others proved to be an insufficient calculus in the favor of security. Framing the legal battle between Apple and the FBI as one of privacy versus security misses the symbiotic nature of their relationship. In our times, defined by a worldwide tragedy of the commons calling for frequent public bailouts, cyber risk, terrorism and climate change you simply cannot have one without the other. Greater transparency, accountability and, above all, cooperation are needed between public and commercial interests.

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