As the battle between tech-giant Apple and the FBI over data and privacy moves into the courtrooms, it’s worth asking a question: what are the true spoils of victory here?
This question is not easy to explain using the standard model of the cyber realm. In that model, cyber is described as a “virtual commons”, a place in which every person can congregate on parity without the physical-world barriers of property and demarcation lines.
But that’s not how the cyber really works. The scientists who invented the internet certainly did envision a commons when they created the interaction of trusted digital nodes. Instead it is the military which uses the best description, calling it a “domain” – land, sea, air, space and cyber. And that should tell us something about what’s going on in that realm.
The other important aspect of cyber is that the internet is the quintessential US invention. Its bones are knitted by the ideas and values of the market, independence, speed, equality and freedom. Not to mention that the internet is almost entirely written and coded in derivations of English.
Firstly, a quick recap. In 2015, a terror attack in California killed 14 people. The FBI now believes important information may be on one of the phones belonging to the deceased terrorists, so the agency asked Apple to bypass the phone’s internal security to access the wanted data. Apple refused, citing privacy concerns fearing the FBI wants to create a system-wide “backdoor” so it can access all phones in the future at will.
While Apple’s concerns are legitimate in that creating a digital backdoor endangers everyone’s privacy (after all, a door is a door, accessible by anyone with legitimate or forged keys), the FBI is not asking for such a backdoor. It simply wants access to a particular device at a particular time.
So none of this justifies why this story got so much press. Sure, there’s a bit of terrorism and popular consumer products titillation. But considering what was in former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaked files, this kind of quiet cyber cooperation between private and public corporations has been common over the past decade. So why are we hearing about it now?
The answer pulls back the curtain. And it has everything to do with your data. The curtain rippled slightly when Mr Snowden’s theft exposed this century’s most consequential fight. We began to see the contours of how power is shifting from public to private corporations in order to control the mind-boggling enormity of society’s digital data.
A long time ago it was discovered that the most effective lever of government power – in princely states, kingly states, territorial states, state-nations, and nation states – is the process of collection and collation of public information. If a power structure knows what its populace wants, needs and fears it can manipulate those emotions to stay in power.
Couple this with what author Philip Bobbitt describes as the superseding of the 20th century nation state with the new 21st century constitutional order called the “market state”. Give us power, the nation state said, and we will improve people’s material well-being. In contrast, the market state promises to maximise the opportunity of its people, leading to the privatisation of many state activities. That is an important and serious difference.
This is the context in which to view the Apple/FBI fight. It is only a skirmish in the broader war to collect and collate a digital society’s information. The spoils of this war is power over a new kind of state, one in which the present concept of a central government is a marginal player at best.
If the FBI is eventually able to compel Apple to open the terrorist’s phone, this success will not dispel the US and other Western government’s growing feeling of impotency under the shadow of these gigantic internet companies.
And the fact that most people support Apple’s stance suggests broad sections of society already think the internet giants are a more suitable power structure than a representative democratic government. But don’t worry about all that data captured by Apple or Facebook. Worry instead about how powerful the companies that purchase Apple or Facebook will become.