The wealthiest corporation in the world and the most powerful government in the world are fighting over a single smartphone. And the future of our social compact with both corporations and government may hang in the balance.

While the U.S. government says it cares about just one phone – an iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists that it wants decrypted – Apple says a judicial order to create a special operating system for the government creates a backdoor that threatens all of its customers’ privacy. It maintains it’s challenging an order from a federal judge to protect “tens of millions of American citizens.”

By extension, some argue, the government could create a precedent that permanently overrides fundamental rights. Former NSA employees say the FBI has the technology to unlock the phone but is using the terrorism investigation to set just such a precedent. Apple has complied with many court orders but says this time is different. If courts rule that creating a customized, compromised operating is not “an undue burden” for Apple, other companies may be forced to do the same by a wide range of governments, both democratic and otherwise. Voices from Tim Cook to Edward Snowden argue that would compromise much of the global tech industry.

We’re through the looking glass when a private corporation seeks to protect its customers from a democratic government. Shouldn’t it be someone from the government who says things like “Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake”? It feels strange to be defended from your government by a corporation (especially one that shares plenty of personal information that it requires from its customers), but tech giants are dancing to this tune lately: Microsoft now alerts customers when governments are hacking their computers. Google and the Microsoft-created RGS Group are offering support for Apple’s defiance, though compared to Tim Cook’s letter to Apple customers, that support feels tepid.

Nearly half the people surveyed in 28 countries say the top issues that will determine their next gadget purchase are privacy and security. Of course, if we did what we say we’d do, we’d all be vegans and go to the gym every day. Android phones have the biggest share of the smartphone market in part because the value prop is that customers hand over personal information in return for a cheaper device.

When someone like Edward Snowden is championing the ethics of the world’s largest company, it’s a signal that something different, exciting, and nuanced is afoot. We’re watching the biggest of BigCos struggle to do good and do well simultaneously. Our shared liberties may hang in the balance.

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Photo Credit: Wolf Gang

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