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Apple vs. FBI: How Will Millennials Fare?Apple vs. FBI: How Will Millennials Fare?

By now, the issue surrounding the infamous federal court case between Apple and the FBI has turned from a purely legal question into one of the biggest ethical debates in several years, as countless Americans consider whether or not the government should have access to private information stored on smartphones.

Michael Cusanelli

March 15, 2016

6 Min Read
Apple vs. FBI: How Will Millennials Fare?

By now, the issue surrounding the infamous federal court case between Apple and the FBI has turned from a purely legal question into one of the biggest ethical debates in several years, as countless Americans consider whether or not the government should have access to private information stored on smartphones.

But how will the outcome affect millennials, the demographic most accustomed to sharing information on the web?

As the first generation to come of age in a “smart” world, millennials lack much of the suspicion of older generations, leading us to store untold amounts of personal text messages, photos, financial information and other sensitive data in our phones. If this information were to become public, it could breach HIPAA law and other confidentiality agreements—not to mention the fact that many individuals consider such an act to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees protection from unauthorized search and seizure.

For the very few of you who might not be up to speed on the case, here are the details: The FBI recently demanded that Apple create new software that can be used to bypass the security measures implemented in iOS 9 so they can access the phone records and personal information of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two shooters involved in the San Bernadino attack on December 2. 

The proposed software would create a “backdoor” into Apple’s own security system. Although the government said the software would only be used in this single situation, Apple CEO Tim Cook and many Americans worry that both the government and cybercriminals could abuse the software if it fell into the wrong hands. For more information, check out this handy video describing the argument from both sides of the aisle.

According to a recent Pew Research Group study, about 47 percent of millennials polled believe the FBI should have access to Farook’s iPhone. Although this is a significant figure, it’s notable that millennials were the only age group where less than half were on the FBI’s side. Fifty-one percent of respondents aged 30-64 believe Apple should comply; the number grew to 54 percent among those aged 64 and older.

So why are the majority of millennials opposed to providing the FBI access to the iPhone in question?  I believe a mix of institutional distrust as well as a generational tendency to freely share information via social media factor heavily into millennials’ wariness to oblige with the federal government.

In a recent study conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, 74 percent of millennials do not trust the federal government. If the FBI were to gain access to software permitting them to access data locked away on confiscated smartphones, this number would likely increase.

And because of our well-documented proclivity to share the minutia of our lives on social media as well as a general carelessness when it comes to protecting passwords, millennials unwittingly put themselves at greater risk for data loss than any other generation. For example, a study conducted by Symantec in Australia last year determined that nearly a third of millennials surveyed continue to engage in risky online behavior despite their knowledge of the risks.

In the very best case scenario, the existence of this software could help the federal government protect Americans from internal and external terrorist attacks as well as determine the origin of cyberthreats. President Obama discussed the issue in depth during this year’s South by Southwest conference in Austin, where he encouraged the American people to take a closer look at both sides of the argument before coming to a concrete decision. But his plea is less likely to sway millennials than other generations; 63 percent of millennials in last year’s Harvard study said they only sometimes or never trust the president to do the right thing.

The problem is that we’re too savvy to the “slippery slope” nature of government to trust it with this sort of access. Many millennials fear that this software could be used to secretly access personal health records, financial information and documents from confiscated devices, which could then be used to accuse and sentence Americans for criminal acts. Not to mention that just one software leak could provide criminals with access to the technology, thus allowing them to steal personal information despite the use of passwords and other security measures on individual devices. These devices also show users’ location histories, which could be used to follow individuals or track their whereabouts.

As noted above by Complex, the long-term ramifications of granting the FBI access to private information on smartphones are even more chilling. Some individuals believe that if the FBI is granted access to one iPhone, they can eventually push to access additional data, including access to microphones and cameras within these devices so they can spy on users. This suspicion is rampant among millennials, who have a deep, generational distrust of government.

And not only could a ruling in favor of the FBI negatively affect millennials, but business owners of all stripes could also be impacted. Think of it this way; once the federal government learns of a way to circumvent one form of digital security, they could theoretically learn to bypass other “secure” solutions, thus damaging cybersecurity experts’ ability to protect customers from data breaches. By stripping away the security inherent in iOS 9, the government would be one step closer to making third-party security software ineffective.

Nicholas Black, CEO of America’s IT Doctors, a millennial-owned company specializing in computer maintenance, backup and network security, said he believes that by allowing the FBI access to one device we would in theory be opening Pandora’s Box.

“I definitely don’t agree with the FBI’s request,” said Black. “The biggest problem in this situation and the problem with a lot of legislation that gets passed for technology is that law makers aren’t technically inclined. Baby boomers … end up passing laws without fully understanding them.”

According to a 2014 Nielsen study, the likelihood of an adult owning a smartphone decreases with age. The study found that 86 percent of 25-34 year olds were likely to own a smartphone, compared to only 70.8 percent of Baby Boomers between the ages of 45 and 54. These numbers continue to decline for older generations.

Undoubtedly, there are merits to both sides of the argument and no stance on the subject should be taken lightly despite your personal opinion on the matter. Like the topic of wage inequality and many other ethical dilemmas prevalent in our society, the difference between right and wrong is never black and white, but somewhere in between.

The Millennial Report is a weekly column by associate editor Michael Cusanelli, who graduated from Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism in 2013. He is an avid gamer and movie buff who spends nearly as much time concocting the perfect mix tape as he does writing. You can find him on Twitter @MCusanelliSB.

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About the Author(s)

Michael  Cusanelli

Associate Editor, Penton Technology Group, Channel

Michael Cusanelli is the associate editor for Penton Technology’s channel properties, including The VAR Guy, MSPmentor and Talkin' Cloud. He has written articles and produced video for Newsday.com and is a graduate of Stony Brook University's School of Journalism in New York. In his spare time Michael likes to play video games, watch sci-fi movies and participate in all things nerdy. He can be reached at [email protected]


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