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.

39 thoughts 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).

  2. Interesting article. What I find most troublesome is that the FBI applied for a magistrate judge to issue and order under the All Writs act. The statute was written in 1789, a full century before the first phone call! Even in it’s current form, its over a century old. How law from that time is being applied to today, when times have changed so drastically.. it’s bizarre! Especially when the law is being used to infringe on the rights, liberties and protections we enjoy in the digital age. Overal i’m fully in support of Apple for upholding our rights.

  3. I don’t know if its malicious intent or sheer ignorance, but what the FBI and the US courts didn’t seem to understand was that this wasn’t an issue of “national security vs personal privacy”. No, what Apple was arguing, and what anyone who’s remotely tech savvy understands, is that giving the FBI a ‘key’ would undermine the sanctity of encryption which threatens the security of people everywhere. The entire argument against Apple desired national security, in aiding criminal investigations, at the expense of national security, in weakening encryption. Totally illogical.

  4. I think the government should have access to all our phones if need be. If you haven’t got anything to hide what should you be worried about? People should be less concerned about their un-uploaded instagram selfies being leaked especially when it could save the lives of innocent people! If Apple gave governments back-door access to criminals phones, I can only see this as a force for good. Criminals don’t have the right to have their privacy upheld – especially if they’re terrorists! What’s even more concerning is the government relying on an act from the 1700s to push this through – we need knew legislation ASAP!

    1. Couldn’t agree more, elrubbo238. The FBI aren’t interested in what you had for breakfast this morning, or what Taylor Swift album you listen to most. No, there only interested in apprehending hardened criminals! This is exacly like people covering their computer webcams with sticky tape. Do you really think the government wants to see your sweaty, clenched forehead while you munch down on a hotdog? hell no.

      Greg Clayburn has every right to say that Apple has an obligation to unlock the iPhone. And they have an obligation to the majority of people who also think they should have hacked their phone!

      The FBI, and more generally governments around the world, have every obligation to use the immense resources they have available to them to protect their people – NO MATTER THE COST. No ifs. No buts. NO COCONUTS!

  5. I’ve got to agree with the FBI here. When I lock my doors, the government can’t legally enter my property. However, if for whatever reason they get a warrant first (perhaps i’m a running a criminal enterprise from my basement, maybe selling drugs.. whatever) then they can break my locks and do whatever they need to do. Why should it be treated any different just because the lock and the property is now digital?

    The FBI had a warrant to get into the phone of a known terrorist. Not your phone, or my phone. A terrorist’s. Who cares about the privacy of the terrorist? More importantly, who care’s about public safety and the justice system? I certainly do.

    I’m fully in favour of digital privacy and anonymity, but at what cost?

  6. Every country in the developed world, or should I say the “cyber world” given that we are talking electronic information, have data protection rules and laws. These stem from the right of an individual to expect to be afforded certain protections, including privacy of personal information.

    The choice to reflect upon archaic laws or choose to reflect upon straw polls accounting for less that 0.0003% of a country population to swing popular opinion, as stated well in your article, should be of greater concern. Especially in an age where 280 characters typed by one senior citizen are believed by more American’s than the educated writings of the most learned and informed the country have to offer.

    So, I agree. The RGS are taking the right actions in stopping short term, knee jerk reactions leaving the greater population open to unnecessary and unwanted scrutiny from a government in the US that has, in recent memory, proved unable to manage draconian laws at the expense of anybody they chose to remove or exclude (McCarthyism)

    Read 1984 by George Orwell if you ever wish to know how Big Brother can act if given too much control

  7. I agree that Apple should provide the government with a ‘backdoor’ to terrorists phone, however as unethical these people are, they are still human and thus have human rights. So were is the line drawn with what data can and will be taken? It starts with terrorists but once they have access what stops them from using this in other criminal cases? Thus, if there was some way to regulate when and how this policy is used I believe this would gain more support. As surely apple would be able to limit what data is provided to the government rather than simply giving all the data on the phone. Therefore, even as this currently stands I agree that the government should have access to terrorists data if that would help in the capture and bring them to justice.

  8. I agree that Apple should be able to create a pathway for the government to access terrorists phones. Saving innocent lives before an attack could happen is far more ethical than not intervening at all. However, there must be a line drawn somewhere to limit this access, as the government could easily extend this to simpler crimes and then have access to potentially even non-offending individuals. There must be a level of human rights left at bay otherwise no-one would have privacy.

  9. The government having access to any phone they want at any time sounds excellent, if you’re into dystopian dictatorships. It’s foolish to argue that the motivations of the US government here is/was moral and righteous, that they will only use this tool to protect people from violent acts and punish bad actors. There’s been huge masses of documents leaked by whistle blowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange exposing government coordinated spying operations on ordinary citizens. It’s difficult to believe that giving governments access to these types of tools will not be used as another method to spy, manipulate and control us. To give governments access to these tools in the name of counter-terrorism and justice is to cut off your nose to spite your face.

  10. To be honest, the amount of personal information we already willingly put on social media and other public platforms, makes me wonder how much greater a step it is for governments to have backdoor access to more personal data? For a lot of people, their ‘digital self’ is a very public entity. I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re losing much. But on the other hand, what I struggle with is how much can be gained from giving that access away in the first place. I don’t think I would feel a lot safer.

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