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Apple’s Spat With FBI Exposes Deeper Rift Over Privacy

March 1, 2016, 1:03 PM UTC

I was in L.A. Monday, and you’d think everywhere I went people would be talking about the Academy Awards the night before. (Columnist’s prerogative: Three cheers for journalism!) They weren’t. They were talking about Apple versus the FBI.

I still find that when I talk to people generally involved in the non-technology business world there is little sympathy for Apple’s position, as I wrote last week. Among technologists, pro-encryption is the norm.

This seems to be a debate about technology—a face-off between privacy advocates and law enforcement officials and their supporters. Yet in reality it is as much a statement about belief in government. One simplistic way to think about it is where one stands on Edward Snowden: Hero or villain? The hero crowd tends to be on Apple’s side; those who see Snowden as a traitor obviously are with the FBI.

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This spat is so much bigger than Apple and the FBI, though. To understand this, I highly recommend a Rolling Stone article from last fall by the journalist David Kushner about the so-called Darknet. Kushner explains in admirably clear language how a separate network runs on a U.S.-government-funded browser called Tor that allows its users to be anonymous. The government started it as a voice for dissidents and others needing privacy, yet a small percentage of Darknet users are criminals, including drug dealers.

Unsurprisingly, federal prosecutors want to chip away at anonymity on the Darknet even though their own government created it. Supporters don’t condone criminality on the Darknet, but they oppose the government’s efforts to unmask anyone on it.

The solution? It isn’t easy. Sound familiar?