The Apple-FBI showdown is about something more basic than software and laws

Look beyond the rhetoric.
Look beyond the rhetoric.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Apple’s battle with the FBI is being talked about as a defining moment for privacy. And it is. But the real reason why is obscured by both sides’ rhetoric.

The FBI wants Apple’s help breaking into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. Apple has helped the government get data off locked iPhones many times in the past. But whereas on older iPhones it could do that just by bypassing the phone’s built-in security, this time it would have to write a new, less secure operating system and put it on the phone. That, says Apple, marshaling an impressive-sounding string of legal reasons, is what makes this case different—a precedent that, once set, will bend tech firms to the government’s every future whim.

But you might still ask: Is it fundamentally different? That’s the doubt the government wants to sow: Apple has drawn a line in the sand here, but couldn’t it have drawn it anywhere?

And in a sense, the government is right. For all Apple’s fancy legal arguments, something feels disingenuous in claiming that it’s OK to betray your customers’ privacy to the FBI using one technique and not another.

Yet the government’s claim is disingenuous too. It implies that everything is a continuum and there are no matters of principle. The reality, however, is that everything we now consider a matter of principle—from the ban on insider trading all the way back to “thou shalt not kill”—was once a line drawn in the sand, and only over time became a mighty barrier. Principles don’t get made until someone says “enough.”

Apple has now said “enough.” Other tech companies are joining in. Principles aren’t enshrined because of a legal wrangle over a technological quirk. They’re enshrined because someone chooses to stand and fight for them.

This was published as part of the Quartz Weekend Brief. Sign up for our newsletters here, tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe & Africa, and the Americas.