Personal Privacy vs. Societal Good: Thoughts on the San Bernardino iPhone Controversy

Image: iStock.

Image: iStock.

If you commit murder and leave evidence on your iPhone, Apple won’t turn you in. That was the company’s stance on a request from the U.S. government to access the locked phone of Syed Farook, one of the killers in the December 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting.

Apple claimed bypassing the security functions of Farook’s phone would be an invasion of privacy and damage their reputation. However, in this case, it might have been worth violating digital privacy laws in order to protect the broader public. The question is, though, who was right, Apple or the U.S. government? Or more broadly, how do we determine the ethics of whether and when to compromise privacy for public health?

In a recent study, researchers used an online survey to explore the relationship between ethical factors and brand loyalty. The researchers recruited a diverse group of 220 university students and asked participants to answer questions about their latest online purchase. The survey focused on four different factors: security, privacy, non-deception (e.g., accurate product descriptions, customer support), and fulfillment (e.g., clear pricing, timely delivery). In turn, these four factors were considered in the context of satisfaction and loyalty to a manufacturer and its website.

In terms of satisfaction, fulfillment was the most important factor to consumers, followed by non-deception and security. In terms of loyalty, the findings were more interesting: privacy turned out to be a major concern — it was the only factor related directly with loyalty — but non-deception and fulfillment were not of significant concern, which was contrary to the authors’ expectations.

Now you might be asking, what do people’s perceptions of brands and products have to do with whether Apple should protect a killer? The tie-together and take-home from this study is that companies like Apple place a high value on what their customers think and want to make them happy. If consumers will be more loyal to products they think take their security seriously, then companies will start touting the security of their products. And nothing says we’ll keep your information secure like resisting an order from the U.S. government to provide information.

Just last week, the government announced that it was able to unlock Farook's iPhone without any help. This development may swing the conversation toward whether Apple’s security measures are actually effective, but as marketers have pointed out, the company’s stand will underscore its commitment to privacy and security in the eyes of consumers. Apple has already expressed interest in learning how the phone was unlocked, and its public statements have focused relentlessly on the needs of its customers (and avoided the ethical minefield associated with the San Bernardino case and other high-profile requests for access to locked phones).

It’s growing increasingly clear that the government wants more oversight and companies — and people, for the most part — want more privacy for individuals. So, the short answer to the question about when ethics trumps public health depends on whether or not you’re a customer who values privacy. This issue will continue to be under a very bright spotlight, given the government has cited a controversial interpretation of a law from 1789 during its battle with Apple. If enacted, the law will give judges the power to force companies to comply with any court order to release digital information.  

Who will get the last word? Stay tuned — I’ll have more to say about privacy and other hot button issues like cyberbullying and identity theft in upcoming posts.

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see digitalbehavior.ucla.edu for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: www.SeanYoungPhD.com