Former Ontario information and privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian argues that Apple should not comply with the FBI’s demand to circumvent iPhone encryption technology to allow the FBI access to a terrorist’s iPhone.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, current events, law

Key Question to Explore:

  • What kinds of arguments exist for and against government access to personal smart phone data?

New Terminology:

Encryption, decryption, crypto, innovation

Materials Needed:

Globe article and the Internet

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

The recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, ended with the suspected terrorists’ deaths and with one of their iPhones in the custody of the FBI. Believing that the phone likely contained useful information about the suspected terrorists’ contacts and networks, the FBI attempted to access the data but were foiled by the phone’s built-in security. The FBI then asked Apple to create the technology that would allow them access, but Apple has not complied, arguing that to do so would put millions of iPhone users’ personal data at risk.

Many students use iPhones and trust that their private data—photos, emails, and finances—are secure from intruders. Students can benefit from a lesson in which they weigh their privacy rights against the possibility that a way around their smartphone’s security might be used to prevent terrorist attacks and possibly save lives.

In this lesson, students will work in groups to inform themselves about the issues and to then argue for or against Apple’s decision not to comply with FBI demands. The link, below, can provide more background to the controversy, should that be necessary.

Action (lesson plan and task):

Engage students in a short discussion about the key issue outlined above. Ask for a show of hands to determine how many students use smartphones. Next, ask them if they would be comfortable with the government or anyone else having access to everything they have stored on their phones.

Finally, present them with the dilemma: If the government or its agencies were to convince the manufacturer of your smartphone to allow the government access to a criminal’s phone for “the greater good” in the hope of saving lives, but it would mean that your own smartphone would now be vulnerable to unwelcome access by criminals or others, would you agree with the government’s position?

Next, provide the article and the suggested link, above (or your own preferred link) to the students and organize them into groups. Task them as follows:

Read both Ms. Cavoukian’s article and the one from the LA Times aloud to your group and discuss as necessary to ensure that everyone understands the terms and issues.

Next, discuss the issues within your group with a focus on the following questions and prompts:

  • What are the key reasons that Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, is refusing to comply with the FBI’s requests?
  • Why is his position described as “principled”? What is the principle involved?
  • Ms. Cavoukian claims that were Apple to comply, it would open the door to criminals and governments to access any smartphone of the same type. Given Ms. Cavoukian’s credentials, shown at the bottom of the article, are you inclined to agree or disagree with her assessment?
  • What is meant by the term “greater good”? How does it apply to your desire for privacy versus the government’s desire to foil criminals?
  • If Apple were to comply, how might this “take its toll on innovation and prosperity which will further erode our privacy and freedom”?
  • Would you be willing to give up your privacy rights if it meant saving someone else’s life? Is the question that simple or is it more complex? Explain.
  • Finally, take a poll among your group members to see how many think Apple’s position is wrong and how many believe it is right. Be prepared to argue your case to the class.

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Groups report and explain their positions on the issues to the whole class.
Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Students can describe the key issues that frame this dilemma and can bring evidence in support of their position on the overriding issue of privacy vs. greater good.

Confirming Activity:

  • Consider having students follow the story in the media to see if Apple changes its position and/or to see what actions the FBI might take next.