Unencrypted: Why you should care about Apple vs FBI

This piece is a collaboration, including contributions from Jennifer Eltringham and M. Jay Granger and benefiting from outside research by Laurie Carl and Louise Smith. Additional editing by Hailley Fargo.

Hack Library School is not a journalistic endeavor—which is good, because we are not journalists. We are, however, students of library and information science, and we think the standoff between the US District Court of California and Tim Cook of Apple Inc. should concern everyone who works in our industry. We have two reasons, one for each of the major segments of our professional community.

1. Librarians value the right to privacy, and the boundaries of that right are being negotiated.

The American Library Association asserts that “privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association.” Articulated fully in an Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, this position recognizes that fear is anathema to free inquiry. Privacy, the preservation of personal boundaries, affords researchers the freedom to ponder, to inquire, to learn without fear.

However, some attempts on the part of law enforcement to investigate potential threats to public safety infringe on researchers’ right to privacy, fostering instead a climate of fear. The case of the so-called Connecticut Four is one potent example. The ultimate decision of the court regarding Apple’s obligation to provide law enforcement with a way to access individual user data may have as much or more precedent-setting power

2. Non-librarian information professionals who search, collect, organize, analyze, or otherwise manipulate information for their livelihood depend on the secure right to freely conduct their work without the fear of unjustified search and seizure.

When Edward Snowden leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents in 2013 exposing the vast and often illegal scope of government surveillance, public response was overwhelming. Chaotic and conflicted, reliable only in its outrage, the voice of the people demanded action. 

Arguably, however, the most lasting result of that outcry is Edward Snowden’s fame. Government surveillance  continues; government surveillance of United States citizens continues. The extent of that surveillance as well as the uses to which collected information can be put remain governed by laws—laws which are created by public representatives and interpreted by public judges. As law enforcement makes use of new technologies, the stakes are particularly high for those who work with information that may be sensitive or suspicious. 

The conversation surrounding what has been popularly dubbed Apple vs FBI (#applevsfbi) is critically important from a library and information science perspective. This piece is not a call to support Apple, though we share its concern for the security of our personal information. This piece is not a call to support the FBI, though we share its ardent desire to secure public safety in the face of terrorist threats. This piece is a call to get involved.

Whether you support Apple’s position, whether you support the FBI’s position, whether you seek an as-yet-unarticulated middle road: it is both your right and your responsibility to activate that support. We encourage you to ask questions, vocalize your opinions, listen to counterarguments, adapt, organize, engage.

That the writers of the United States Constitution promptly amended it to articulate an expressed right to privacy reminds us that this is a very old issue. Our current historical moment is shaped by technologies beyond the wildest imaginings of the writers of the Fourth Amendment. It will be the work of our current government to interpret the rights we have inherited from the past, applying them to the present and the future.

Certainly our courts, our congress, and our president will do much of the interpretation, but so will our genuinely local leaders. Whether government officials, organizational leaders, or day-to-day managers: common people, everyday people, people we know will decide what is private and what is public, what is off-limits and what is available for inspection. We will decide. We are deciding already.


Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

If you are ready to take your place as a participant in the decision-making process, we recommend you begin by reviewing the court order compelling Apple Inc. to assist in enabling the search of the iPhone believed to be used by Syed Rizwan Farook. Then read the “Message to Our Customers” published online by Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple Inc.. Good conversations are in progress at social media outlets, but if you’re looking for a place to start try Medium.

If you are a librarian, you may be interested in reviewing the Library Bill of Rights as well as other resources provided by the ALA Privacy Toolkit. Remember also that divisions and local chapters of the ALA can often provide more specialized information. If you are an information professional outside the library, the AIIP provides excellent resources and an engaged community. To LIS students wanting to think through the issues in the context of their education, we recommend the article “On Librarianship and Activism” recently published by Brenna Murphy as well as Dylan Burns’ “Interview with Alison Macrina” of the Library Freedom Project: both are great places to start a conversation in the comments.

Regular readers of this blog know that “Hack Library School is an invitation to participate in the redefinition of library school using the web as a collaborative space outside of any specific university or organization.”  Underlying this mission, the fundamental belief that motivates our work is that we can exert influence. Therefore, “this is our challenge to you: participate,” and if we may be permitted to alter the latter part of the quote just a bit, “come up with better ideas.” Your voice matters.

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