WashU Expert: Apple’s refusal to unlock San Bernardino shooter’s phone should be applauded

Apple is fiercely opposing a court order to unlock an iPhone used by accused San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook.

The company is taking an important stand on behalf of its users’ privacy, and should be applauded, said Neil Richards, professor of law and a privacy law expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

“In our digital world, we increasingly need to rely on the services provided by intermediaries like Apple to live our lives, and their decisions on our behalf directly affect our civil liberties, including our right to privacy,” said Richards, who is currently working on a project that examines the relationship between user privacy protections, civil liberties and the future of the cloud.


“Our law has been slow to catch up with our new networked technologies like smartphones, email and cloud computing and storage, and a few companies like Apple are courageously standing up for the rights of their users against law enforcement demands that would be unconstitutional in the physical world,” Richards said.

“Microsoft, for example, is also taking an important stand against government demands for the content of its users’ emails without following important legal processes.”

At the same time, Richards said, it’s important to understand that it is good for business for cloud companies to fight for their users’ rights against the government.

“User trust is the critical currency in our digital economy, and putting civil liberties to one side for a moment, companies have an enormous business interest in safeguarding and securing the trust of the people and companies whose data they hold,” he said.

Richards is co-author of a paper, “Taking Trust Seriously In Privacy Law,” which is forthcoming in the Stanford Technology Law Journal. In the paper, Richards and his co-author, Woodrow Hartzog of Stanford University, argue that companies that wish to promote user trust should adhere to four principles: protection (keeping user data secure); discretion (keeping user data confidential); honesty (ensuring that users understand the technology and their rights); and most importantly, loyalty (acting in the best interests of their users).

“In fighting these aggressive government demands for user data, both Apple and Microsoft are behaving in ways that are protective, discreet, honest and loyal to their users,” Richards said. “In so doing, they are setting new best practices for the protection of user privacy, promoting valuable civil liberties, and even making some money along the way. These important stands are a critical part of the way forward for privacy and a better digital society.”

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