Bruce Abramson looks at technology company giants Apple and Amazon handle personal privacy and security.
In Apple’s case, the stakes were particularly high. The FBI believed that an iPhone belonging to Syed Farook—one of the radical Islamic terrorists responsible for the San Bernadino massacre—might reveal useful information about other terrorists planning additional attacks. Unfortunately, Farook—like most people—had password protected his iPhone.
Because Apple had equipped all iPhones with a privacy-protecting algorithm that wiped their memories clean if too many incorrect passwords were entered, any FBI attempt to secure Farook’s data posed a risk of destroying it, instead. So the FBI tried to force Apple to develop a new “backdoor” technology to make the data accessible. Apple refused.
While investigating a homicide committed in a private home in Bentonville, Arkansas, the police noticed that the homeowner—and prime suspect—was something of an electronics junkie. Among his devices was an Amazon Echo, an “always listening” device that, when triggered, records ambient sound and stores the recording on Amazon’s cloud. The police thought that selected recordings might help fill some gaps in their investigation. Amazon refused to hand them over.
How then, is Apple right but Amazon wrong?
The Bentonville police, on the other hand, are simply asking Amazon to turn over data already in Amazon’s possession. Amazon’s refusal rests upon its desire to protect its customer’s privacy—both as a matter of principle and as a matter of sound business practice. Requests of this sort are hardly unusual. They arise, for example, whenever the police ask a bank to open a safety deposit box.
Obviously, it infringes the holder’s privacy rights—but were the police never allowed to open these boxes, they would soon overflow with physical evidence of significant crimes. American courts have considerable experience balancing these concerns on a case-by-case basis. If the Bentonville courts decide that disclosure is warranted here, Amazon should comply.