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Apple fight gives customers sway in privacy debate

When a California court issued an order to Apple to help the FBI break into the iPhone used by one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino, Calif., massacre, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a counterterrorism hawk who in December called on tech companies to stop selling devices that encrypt information, switched sides.

“I thought it was that simple,” Graham told Attorney General Loretta Lynch during a Senate hearing. “I was all with you until I actually started getting briefed by the people in the intel community.”

The public battle waged between the FBI and Apple put the spotlight on encryption and data privacy. According to Chris McClean, an analyst at Forrester Research, that’s a good thing. Now, ordinary people not only know what encryption is — many know enough to argue whether the government should be able to dismantle the technology during investigations. Informed citizens could, he said, push progress in the privacy debate faster than the government can.

Pink slime

The FBI dropped its case against Apple on Monday, saying it accessed the contents of the iPhone. But a larger discussion over privacy and encryption has just begun. Congress is making moves toward legislation that addresses the government’s investigation powers and citizens’ right to protect their information. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) are pushing for a commission to study digital security and privacy issues and then make recommendations to Congress. But, McClean said, it might not matter much.

He explained using a two-word phrase you may recall seeing plastered on news shows a few years ago: pink slime. That’s the unflattering nickname for processed beef used as a food additive in school lunches. (ABC News did a series on the stuff, and the rest is history.)

“This wasn’t the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] coming down on the manufacturer saying, ‘You can’t serve this to our children.’ They actually said, ‘We give this a thumbs-up,'” McClean said. “But once average citizens saw that, that went viral and they shut it down. Two or three of the companies that created that product were out of business within a couple of months.”

Customers and the privacy debate

McClean sees the same thing happening in the encryption and privacy debate. What happens if the feds petition other companies with people’s information in their databases for intel — cell phone providers, utility companies, makers of home-automation systems? Apple took on a powerful government agency. Will other businesses do that in the name of customers’ privacy?

They might, if customers expect it. Apple’s public opposition to the FBI may have given consumers the push they need to start asking tough questions of the companies that serve them. Once they start digging into privacy policies and asking how their data is being collected and how it’s being used, they may find practices they don’t like — and then voice their displeasure.

“Every company now is a data company,” McClean said. “Your grocery store, your hospital, your bank — they’re all data companies. It will be really interesting to see how much consumers are putting pressure on those types of companies to see whether or not they would stand up the same way Apple has.”