The escalating war of words between Apple and the FBI is widely seen as a “security vs. privacy” dilemma. But it’s much more than that. This is also fundamentally a security vs. security dilemma. Lost in this conversation is a more serious discussion of what we as a society value more: our security interests in maximizing the prospects of successful law enforcement investigations (including investigations of terrorist attacks) or our security interests in maximizing U.S. power on the world stage by ensuring the American tech industry continues to thrive.
Apple isn’t just any company. It is a critical part of the technology ecosystem that is vital to US prosperity and a key driver of the global economy. Consider this: In 2015, Apple and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) posted combined revenues of more than $300 billion. That’s a figure equivalent to the GDP of the world’s 38thlargest economy.
The government has compelling interests to keep Americans safe from terrorist attack. But the government also has compelling interests to safeguard the sources of American power over the long term. And increasingly the sources of national power in the 21stcentury are economic, not military.
In international politics, power is the ability to get others to do what you want them to do. Historically, power came from military might. That is less true now than ever before. The US has the world’s best military and spends more on defense than the next several nations combined. But today we face a range of asymmetric threats—from states as well as non-state actors—that render those advantages less decisive on and off “hot battlefields.” The unraveling situation in the Middle East, China’s escalating aggression in the South China Sea, and the daily drumbeat of cyber attacks against U.S. companies, government organizations, and citizens give us daily reminders that military dominance isn’t what it used to be.
What does all this have to do with Apple? A lot, actually. If the government compels tech companies to weaken encryption in ways that make their products and the Internet substantially less secure, U.S. tech companies stand to lose. How much, we don’t yet know. But this much we do know: the more that U.S. tech companies lose, the more U.S. economic clout declines. And the more U.S. economic clout declines, the weaker the U.S. is on the world stage. American power matters. The global economic order, the spread of democratic values, the longest period of great power peace in the modern era—all of these things did not emerge by magic. They arose because the United States had tremendous power and principle and exercised both.
FBI Director Comey understandably wants to do everything he can to investigate the San Bernardino attack. Apple understandably wants to do all it can to protect the privacy of its customers and the vibrancy of its business. Their debate raises hard questions about how to strike the right balance between privacy and security. But what about the security/security tradeoff? What are the potential marginal benefits of unlocking Syed Rizwan Farook’s iphone compared to the potential marginal losses of undermining confidence in American products sold around the world? How do we reconcile short-term vs. long term national security interests? The ability to investigate specific threats vs. the ability to forestall future ones through the preservation and exercise of national power?