Four experts on privacy and security from the University of Arizona weighed in on the headline-grabbing battle between Apple and the FBI in a panel discussion, generally agreeing that such a technological tug-of-war was inevitable — and that it provides a preview of what's to come in the digital age.
The FBI wants Apple to break into the iPhone 5c used by one of the suspects in the recent terrorist shootings in San Bernardino, California. Apple has refused, saying the software that would need to be built for such a task could end up in the wrong hands, compromising civil liberties and personal data protection.
Derek Bambauer, a professor in the UA's James E. Rogers College of Law, said the case is noteworthy for what it isn't about. It isn't about password encryption, surveillance or a single iPhone, he said.
It's about something much bigger, he said.
"The FBI and the Department of Justice have picked this case because it has great facts to establish a precedent," said Bambauer, who studies Internet law, intellectual property, Internet censorship and cybersecurity.
Bambauer was joined on the panel Thursday on campus by Suzanne Weisband, associate professor of management information systems; Steven Rains, associate professor of communication; and Yotam Shmargad, assistant professor of information. All four are part of the faculty advisory board for the new UA Center for Digital Society and Data Studies.
Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center, participated via Skype from Washington, D.C.
Rainie called the case "a big, hairy issue" and said American opinion about it has been a moving target. Initially, he said, about half of those polled took the government's side and nearly 40 percent Apple's side. But don't take those numbers to the bank.
"This is going to end up in Congress' lap," he predicted. "It used to be that Americans were more afraid of government intrusions. But now many feel the government and big corporations are part of the same package."
Shmargad agreed with Bambauer, saying that the government could bypass Apple and hack the phone itself — but it doesn't want to.
"They want to go to court and win," Shmargad said, "and then be able to dictate a lot of decisions by referencing this case."
Rains, describing himself as a social scientist, said to expect the floodgates to open on matters of privacy and security in the coming years.
"If someone asks 'Who are you?', one thing you probably wouldn't say is 'I'm a data-producing machine,'" Rains said. "But our data has value to people. We've become less aware of the privacy trade. The next phase is when all of our devices become Internet-enabled.
"We're sharing personal information in exchange for goods, and that raises a number of important questions."
Rains called the case "a huge PR win" for Apple, regardless of how it turns out.
"It shows they're 'fighting for you,' they're about the consumer," he said. "It allows them to drive home a point that they're not a huge company, they're just a philanthropic organization that happens to make a lot of money. If they don't fight this, it undermines what they stand for."
Weisband said the case connects on a deeper level with the public because we consider our cell phones to be an extension of ourselves.
"Your phone is a lot of your identity," she said. "It becomes a part of you. We like it being encrypted. Taking a piece away is worrisome to the general public."
Written by Doug Carroll, University Relations – Communications