Americans have long held individual privacy, as stipulated in the Bill of Rights, as sacrosanct. In recent years, however, the cyber revolution has brought many uncertainties to citizens’ rights and issues regarding privacy. Specifically, on December 2, 2015, two extremists, Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, shot and killed 14 individuals and wounded 22 more in San Bernardino, California. Months later, in February 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) asked Apple computer to bypass the advanced security encryption on Farook’s iPhone in order to investigate whether the murder spree was an act of organized terrorism. Apple CEO Tim Cook subsequently published a public statement stating that to submit to such a request would not only create a permanent breach in the encryption of Apple products, but it would also set a dangerous precedent in which the government would be able to access any and all citizens’ digital information. Apple denied the request.
The Digital World
Encryption is the act of translating information into code using an algorithm (called a cypher) so it cannot be accessed by people who have not been authorized to see it . Digital encryption uses this same basic idea. When an individual encrypts a piece of information, they translate and lock the information into a code that can only be deciphered by using a key. There are two main kinds of encryption: symmetric and asymmetric, which differ by how they utilize keys .
Asymmetric encryption works by having two sets of keys, a public key and a private key. When someone wants to send information to someone else, they use a public key that gives them permission to encrypt the information they want to send, but they cannot view other encrypted items that may also be in the system. The recipient of the information can decrypt the information with a private key, but they cannot encrypt new information. Symmetric encryption works the same way, except instead of having two keys, one key allows a user to use both the functions of a public and private key (to lock and unlock).
This is important, because what the FBI requested from Apple was the creation of a program that would give them access to the keys that were used to encrypt Apple users’ information. The creation of such a program would create a permanent backdoor into the encryption of all Apple users’ data: conversations, text messages, photographs, and other data.
The issue of digital privacy has raised several important questions, such as 1) how much privacy does one really have in an increasingly technologically dependent age, and 2) should Apple have complied with the FBI’s request for the sake of national security?
According to most sources, the answer to the first question is “not much”. The average person volunteers an astounding amount of personal information via various Internet services. According to a CBS article from 2014, there are an estimated 4,000 data brokering companies that profit from selling and collecting personal information . The largest, Acxiom, claims to have more than 1,500 pieces of information on more than 200 million Americans, and these pieces of information range from health-related data such as genetic and mental illnesses to sexual orientation and prescribed medications, to home and work addresses, phone numbers, and other details.
Protecting Your Privacy
Given how much the world already knows about individuals, can we still protect our privacy, and if so, is the loss of privacy the cost of a safer and better world? By whose standards? Data brokers like Acxiom don’t actively seek out personal information, meaning that all the information they have is information we have given out to others at one time or another. An example is when people create accounts for various Internet services, they often unwittingly fill out fields that are not required and that would otherwise be private. Another common way information is accumulated is through information people put on their social media profiles such Facebook or LinkedIn, thus one should always check privacy settings on their accounts in order to make sure that only people you want to broadcast your information to can see your profile. Identity theft is an increasingly opportunistic crime.
Education, awareness, and personal responsibility can help people reclaim their privacy. The ability to make the choice of what to publicly share or not is an important one. Although the government would argue that less privacy means a safer world, I would argue otherwise, as recent history has shown.
President and General Dwight D Eisenhower once said, “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking is freedom.” Although safety is worth fighting for, it is not worth sacrificing our humanity.
- Clark, B. 2015. “How does encryption work, and is it really safe?” Technology Explained. Retrieved August 13, 2016 from http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/encryption-care/
- Kroft, S. 2014. “The data brokers: Selling your personal information.” CBS News. Retrieved from
Kevin Zhang is a senior at Palo Alto High School. He has an interest in genetics, biochemistry, math, computing, and as well as the humanities. He will be pursuing his undergraduate degree beginning in 2017.