FBI Director James Comey took a rare break from the posturing typical of investigators and prosecutors in the current showdown between Apple and the FBI. While prosecutors argue that Apple’s privacy concerns are a smokescreen to avoid “assist[ing] the effort to fully investigate a deadly terrorist attack,” Comey posted a statement over the weekend in which he took the position that the tension between security and privacy “should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living. It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before.”
Comey’s statement highlights a crucial problem with the development of privacy law: it often is developed in the context of important criminal cases. This comes at a real cost. We all know that Syed Farook committed a horrific crime, and any rights he once had against government searches are now forfeit. But though Apple may have chosen to serve as a limited proxy for its consumers in the San Bernardino case, often the interests of private citizens are wholly absent from the courtroom (or, often, judge’s chambers) when issues of fundamental privacy are debated.
This leads to a serious imbalance: Apple is talking about the diffuse privacy rights of its consumers and the risks of potential incursions by more restrictive, less democratic governments such as China. On the other hand, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance can point to 175 Apple devices that he cannot physically access even though those devices may contain evidence helpful to the government.
New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and one of his deputies put an even finer point on it in an Op-Ed in The New York Times, citing a specific case of a murder victim in Louisiana (more than one thousand miles outside of Mr. Bratton’s jurisdiction) whose murder is unsolved because officers cannot unlock her iPhone, which is believed to contain her killer’s identity. “How is not solving a murder, or not finding the message that might stop the next terrorist attack, protecting anyone?” asks Bratton.
But in assuming that private citizens have no greater fear than whether the police can investigate and prevent crimes, Bratton begs the question. In reality, citizens may see law enforcement as a threat of itself. Learning that the NSA was engaging in comprehensive warrantless surveillance likely has given many law-abiding Americans a greater incentive to protect their data from being accessed by the government. Indeed, in light of the NYPD’s record over the last few years—including a finding by a federal judge that they were systematically violating the rights of black New Yorkers and a lawsuit over religion-based spying on Muslims—it is not hard to see why citizens might want protection against Bratton’s police force.
But even if the police were the angels they purport to be, opening a door for a white hat can easily allow access to a black one. Less than a year ago, hackers used a “brute force” approach to exploit a flaw in iCloud’s security, and dozens of celebrities had their private photos shared with the world. These sex crimes are all but forgotten in the context of the San Bernardino shootings, even though the security weakness the FBI wants installed in Farook’s iPhone is markedly similar to that exploited with respect to iCloud.
Nor do those who wish for privacy need to invoke hackers or criminals. A private, intimate moment with a spouse or loved one; a half-finished poem, story, or work of art; or even a professional relationship with a doctor or mental health professional cannot exist unless they can remain private. Once these interactions took place in spoken, unrecorded conversations or on easily discarded paper; now many of our daily activities are carried out on our mobile devices. Even if one has nothing to hide, many citizens might balk at the prospect of having to preserve their private conversations in a format readily accessible by the police.
But if Mr. Comey has shown unusual insight, Mr. Bratton’s one-sided, myopic question illustrates the importance of Apple’s position and the inability of law enforcement officials to be objective about the interests at stake. Police and prosecutors are not always your friends or your defenders. Their goals are—and always will be—investigating and solving crimes and convicting suspected criminals. The less an officer knows, the harder it will be to investigate a case. As a result, privacy rights—even when asserted by innocent, law-abiding citizens—make their job more difficult, and many officers see those rights as simply standing in their way.
This is hardly news. Nearly sixty years ago the Supreme Court observed that officers, “engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime,” are simply not capable of being neutral in criminal investigations. For precisely that reason, the Fourth Amendment requires them to seek approval from a “neutral and detached magistrate” before a search warrant may issue.
That is why Mr. Comey’s acknowledgement that the FBI is not a disinterested party is so refreshing. Pro-law-enforcement voices have been clamoring to require Apple to compromise the security it built into the iPhone, invoking their role as public servants to buttress their credibility. But when it comes to privacy, the police do not—and cannot—represent the public interest. As Comey acknowledged, they are “investigators,” and privacy rights will always stand as an obstacle to investigation.