The ethics of unbreakable encryption: Rawlsian privacy and the San Bernardino iPhone

Morten Bay


Inspired by the 2016 case of the encrypted Apple iPhone used by alleged terrorists in the San Bernardino, Calif. attack, this paper explores the question of whether the use of completely unbreakable encryption online or off-line would be considered ethical by the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls is widely acknowledged as having played an important role in how we perceive freedom and liberty in Western democracies today, and his work on justice, fairness and liberty appears to be a great source of knowledge for politicians, policy-makers and activists. Several recent events and threats to national security of a technological nature have raised ethical questions about the relationship between state and citizen and how technological power should be divided between these two parties, particularly when it comes to the right to privacy. However, in contrast with a wide-spread perception of Rawls’ work, this article shows that there are cases in which Rawls’ principles actually place a limitation on liberty in these matters. This paper presents a thought experiment in which it becomes clear that Rawls’ advocacy for liberty did not extend to cases in which social cooperation in a well-ordered society would be obstructed. Based on a study of Rawls’ work, the author concludes that whereas Rawls would consider strong encryption both necessary and ethical, completely unbreakable encryption would be considered a violation of social cooperation and thus indefensible for Rawls.


encryption, iphone, apple, fbi, john rawls, ethics, unbreakable, cryptography, impenetrable, social cooperation, well-ordered society, maximin, privacy, citizens, rights,

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