Following the mass shooting in San Bernardino that occurred in December 2015 it was discovered that the shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook had an iPhone that the FBI thought might hold information that would be valuable in its investigation. The FBI obtained a court order to compel Apple to help the FBI unlock the phone, which Apple opposed. The case appeared headed for a prolonged and divisive court battle when an “outside party” showed the FBI a way to unlock the phone without Apple’s insistence.
Apple vs. the FBI
Apple received both praise and criticism for its stance. Defenders of the tech giant’s stand cited the right to privacy as a paramount value of America; opponents argued that a potential threat to national security should override the privacy of a few. While the issue was resolved, the debate is far from over.
The Justice Department indicated that it would continue asking or compelling tech companies for assistance in the future:
It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties, or through the court system when cooperation fails. We will continue to pursue all available options for this mission, including seeking the cooperation of manufacturers and relying upon the creativity of both the public and private sectors.
— U.S. Justice Department
Patriot Act expanded the ability of government to gather information
Following the attack on 9/11, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, which significantly expanded the right and ability of the government to gather intelligence information. In 2015, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act that made some modifications to the gathering of bulk information of phone records.
A majority supports greater government surveillance
A Pew Research Report poll revealed that the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Paris and elsewhere have moved public opinion strongly back in the direction of supporting greater government surveillance to protect the country from acts of terror. The survey showed that 56% of the public felt that government had not gone far enough in protecting the country, while only 28% felt that it had gone too far in restricting civil liberties.
At the same time, Americans make a clear distinction between approving the collection of their information for national security purposes as opposed to data collection by business, interest groups and law enforcement (other than for national security issues), which they oppose. The challenge is deciding who should determine what a national security issue is.
The nothing to hide argument
A number of people ascribe to the ‘nothing to hide argument.’ In other words, as long as someone is not doing something wrong, then they have nothing to fear from the government reading their email or listening to their phone conversations.
If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place, but if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it's important, for example that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.
— Eric Schmidt, CEO of Alphabet (Google’s parent company)
The nothing to hide argument appeals to many people, but others find it too simplistic and feel it puts too much faith in the government to correctly discern meaning and intent.
Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.
— Edward Snowden
The argument is unlikely to be resolved anytime in the near future. As terror events peak, the public will be more demanding of the government’s right and obligation to protect the country from attack, even if requires sacrificing some degree of privacy. During calmer times, the pendulum may well swing back towards demanding greater individual privacy and less intrusion on the part of the government in people’s affairs.