WHEN should the interests of public security override the individual rights to privacy? The same question lies behind two debates on different sides of the Atlantic at present. In the UK, the Government is trying to rush through Parliament measures to allow the security services to access our internet-browsing history. In the United States, the FBI is trying to force Apple to crack open iPhones to state scrutiny.
On the surface, there are clear parallels. To keep us safe, it is necessary to intrude on our personal liberty. That is not a contentious principle: we all make that concession every time we stop at a red traffic light rather than follow the principle that personal liberty should not be impeded and drive blithely into the side of cars passing over the crossroads before us.
And yet, as the novelist David Lodge put it in a rather different context, how far can you go? In the UK, the Government has just published a revised version of the Investigatory Powers Bill, which civil-liberties campaigners have branded the “Snoopers’ Charter”. It would allow anti-terrorist officers to track which websites we all have visited in the past 12 months.
In the US, the FBI has made two separate applications to the courts to force Apple to write software to override the security device that wipes an iPhone if more than ten failed attempts are made to enter its PIN — thus allowing FBI computers to bombard the machine with every conceivable password combination until it opens.
Most prominence has been given to investigators’ wanting access to the phone of an Islamist terrorist who went on a shooting spree in California. This week, however, FBI agents who are trying to open a drug dealer’s phone made a similar request.
Proportion is the guide to decision-making here. The task facing British MPs is to scrutinise the safeguards that the Government is proposing, to ensure that interception warrants are granted only in situations of real gravity. And parliamentarians must be satisfied that the storage of these records by internet providers is properly secure from the criminal hackers for whom our shopping and banking records would be a cornucopia.
In the US, the issue of balance weighs heavily against the government. It is asking Apple to devise new software that, although it will assist the FBI, creates much wider risks to the privacy of individuals. Many people nowadays run their lives from their smartphones, which contain a wealth of personal detail, from contacts and addresses to passwords, PINs, and personal ID of all kinds — everything needed for the cybertheft that is the massive growth sector in the criminal world. Most significantly, this is carried on devices that are routinely lost or stolen.
To write software that allows these to be cracked is too dangerous in a world where the barriers between crime-busters and criminals are too porous. What is being proposed in the UK should be far less intrusive, and less risky. But ministers must not succumb to the temptation to rush the legislation through without allowing detailed scrutiny. Diligence rather than speed is of the essence here. The devil is in the detail.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.