Should All Locks Have Keys? – The FBI-Apple Encryption Dispute

Group 51

On December 2nd 2015, fourteen people were killed and twenty-two others were seriously injured in a terrorist attack perpetrated in San Bernardino, California [1]. The FBI recovered an iPhone 5C owned by one the shooters involved in the attack. The phone had been locked with a four-digit password and was programmed to automatically delete the data within after ten failed password attempts. A United States magistrate judge issued a court order under the All Writs Act of 1789 to mandate Apple to create a new version of the phones iOS operating system that could be installed and run to disable these security features on the phone.

The Greater Good

Utilitarianism is a main variety of consequentialism and holds that the most ethical actions are those that bring the greatest amount of good, or pleasure, for the greatest number of people.

In a survey conducted by CBS News which sampled 1,022 Americans, it was found that 50% think Apple should unlock the phone, while 45% think that Apple should not [2]. A national survey conducted among 1,002 adults by Pew Research Centre found that 51% believe Apple should unlock the iPhone in order to assist the FBI’s investigation, while 38% believe that Apple should not unlock the iPhone to protect the security of information of other users (the remaining 11% not offering an opinion on the matter) [3]. Support of the FBI’s course was also voiced by some families of the victims and survivors of the attack. Gregory Clayborn, father of 27-year-old Sierra who lost her life in the attack, said that he believes Apple has an obligation to unlock the phone [4].

With a greater number of people supporting the action of Apple unlocking the iPhone and creating a ‘backdoor’ for the FBI (i.e. disabling certain security features hindering the investigation), this course of action would bring the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism tells us that this would then be the most ethical action to pursue as more people, including grieving families seeking justice, would feel pleasure than those who would be hurt by the loss of information security.

Furthermore, according to philosopher Immanuel Kant’s duty based ethics, the right thing should be done, regardless of whether it causes more harm than good eventually. It is a duty to protect the public by accessing vital information on smartphones, in the hope to stop further large scale criminal events. The safety and rescuing of lives is surely worth the risk of the security of private information. If passed, this law would certainly become universal, to many countries, with many different smartphone companies. This is something that would also fit in with Kant’s ideologies[5]. Lastly, Apple’s willingness to support the investigation, evidenced by the four methods they proposed to the FBI that didn’t involve creating a ‘backdoor’ [6], suggests that the company may have been principally concerned with protecting their perception to consumers. According to virtue ethics, this motivation is not virtuous and therefore not ethical.

The Threat to Data Security and The Dangerous Precedent

Smartphones have become an essential and integral part our life in modern society, with an estimated  worldwide ownership of over 2.5 billion[7]. These devices store an incredible amount of personal information, from our private conversations and photos, to our financial information and location history. The government wants technology companies to develop tools that bypass the security features that protect all that information, namely data encryption, to access some devices. Tim Cook has argued that creating a key for just one iPhone is not “a simple, clean-cut solution” and that the request “ignores both the basics of digital security and the significance of what the government is demanding”[8]. Indeed, creating a key to unlock encrypted devices forces weakness that, once exposed by bad actors, risks the data security of people everywhere – regardless of the virtuous intentions of the government to protect innocent, law-abiding citizens, there is no way to build a lock accessible to moral righteousness and impermeable to moral corruption. According to the principles of care ethics, Apple and other technology companies have a responsibility to safeguard and protect their customers’ personal data against sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals who intend to maliciously exploit the weaknesses created in encrypted devices, which necessarily requires they protect data encryption.

The Reform Government Surveillance (RGS), a coalition of firms including Microsoft and Google opposed Government pressure to intentionally implement encryption backdoors. Proceeding the dispute, an additional core principle was introduced, titled ‘Ensuring Security and Privacy through strong encryption’ [9]. The RGS argued that engineering vulnerabilities into encrypted devices undermines the users privacy and protection of sensitive data. As dependence on smartphones and cloud technology for data storage and transmission becomes increasingly imperative, allowing Government access for even a singular case may compromise the security of personal data for millions of users. With growing concern regarding cyber security posing a significant threat to society, consideration into consequentialism is needed. The consequences of this action may result in reduced trust from individual and organisational consumers in Apple products and services. The authority held by US Government could result in a further breach of privacy if they were able to unlock any Apple device. This may entail building surveillance software with the ability to access the user’s health records, track live location and even access microphone and camera features [10]. This invasion of privacy proves highly unethical with little evidence to indicate a positive outcome would ensue as a result of backdoor access, ultimately violating the premise of utilitarianism to the everyday lives of smartphone users.

Further, the interdependence and interconnection of people and technology has increased substantially in the last three decades and continues to develop. Many experts predict that technology will be directly integrated in the brain. The legal precedent set by mandating technology companies to weaken security features may have incredibly significant and unintended consequences on future generations. This is prohibitively unethical according to the theory of consequentialism.

Initial Decision

We believe that Apple and other technology companies have a responsibility to protect and safeguard data encryption, but what are your thoughts? Should governments have access to the devices of criminals, or are technology companies right to protect data encryption? Let us know in the comments.


  1. BBC, “San Bernardino shooting”, Accessed March 14 2019.
  2. CBS Corporation, “Apple, Privacy, and the Fight against Terrorism”, Accessed March 14 2019.
  3. Pew Research Centre, “More Support for Justice Department Than for Apple in Dispute Over Unlocking iPhone”, Accessed March 14 2019.
  4. Abdullah, Tami; Myers, Amanda Lee. “Some Victims in Terror Attack Support Efforts to Hack iPhone”, Accessed March 14 2019.
  5. BBC. 2014. BBC Ethics Guide .Accessed March 14, 2019.
  6. Cline, Austin. 2018. Thought Co. September 19. Accessed March 14, 2019.
  7.  Jacob Poushter, Caldwell Bishop and Hanyu Chwe. n.d. Pew Research Centre, “Social Media Use Continues to Rise in Developing Countries but Plateaus Across Developed Ones”. Accessed March 14, 2019.
  8. Cook, Tim. 2016. Apple, “A Message to Our Customers”. February 16. Accessed March 14, 2019.
  9.  Reform Government Surveillance . 2018. “PUTTING PRINCIPLES INTO ACTION”. April 24. Accessed March 14, 2019.
  10.  Cook, Tim. 2016. Apple, “A Message to Our Customers”. February 16. Accessed March 14, 2019.

1 thought on “Should All Locks Have Keys? – The FBI-Apple Encryption Dispute

  1. The introduction to the article was good, and the argument for included a good amount of ethical reasoning. I liked the lead with Care Ethics in the argument against, this and the support from utilitarianism gave good support.

    Where am I on this topic, I’m tending to For argument but I think the Against argument has some very good points too (particularly setting up a deliberate vulnerability).

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