Could the FBI really force Apple engineers to break encryption?

It’s one thing to compel a corporation to do something—but what about the rights of the individuals who actually do the work?

 
Demonstrators protest outside FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. holding iPhones

Demonstrators protest outside FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. over the bureau’s request that Apple create a software backdoor to help it crack an iPhone involved in a terror investigation. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty)

News surfaced recently that, in the event that the FBI is successful in getting a court to compel Apple to unlock an iPhone, the company’s engineers might simply not do the work.

In addition to raising interesting practical questions (still hypothetical at this point) for the FBI, this turn raises interesting ethical questions about forced labour. It’s easy enough in the abstract to accept the idea of a court forcing a corporation—a lifeless thing—to do something. But it’s somewhat more difficult to stomach the idea of a court order compelling a number of human individuals to do work over a period of weeks. We’re all familiar of course with the idea of courts forcing people to do things — to disclose a piece of information, for example. But forcing labour, in the absence of a criminal conviction of the individuals involved, is dramatically different. It may even be a violation of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. constitution, which forbids “slavery [and] involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

This is also a reminder of the complex relationship between corporations per se and the people that, roughly speaking, make them up.

Back in 2011, a lot of people criticized then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney for saying during a campaign stop that “corporations are people.” In context, it was pretty clear that Romney wasn’t referring to the controversial notion of corporate personhood, but rather to the simple fact that corporations are (in a practical sense) composed of people. When corporations profit, inevitably some people profit. And, more importantly for the present case, when corporations do labour, some people do labour.

The current Apple v FBI situation is a good example of Romney’s point. You can’t compel Apple to unlock an iPhone without compelling its human engineers to do certain work.

Of course, requiring people to do work they don’t particularly want to do is generally regarded as permissible within the context of a labour contract. When you sign up for a particular job, no one promises you that you’ll love every minute of it. So in complying with the (possible, potential) court order, Apple’s engineers would merely be doing their jobs. But on the other hand, there’s apparently now evidence that such a request would be considered sufficiently odious to make those engineers give up their jobs entirely. In that event, getting the work done would mean either literally compelling the individual engineers to do the work, or finding engineers with very specific skills to take their place.

And news emerged recently that the FBI may have found a way to get into gunman Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone without the help of Apple and its engineers. Whether the non-Apple route will work remains unknown. But the case still raises interesting questions about the rights and duties of corporations, and the way (or the extent to which) those rights and duties are ultimately held by humans. We offer legal protection to corporate property, not out of respect for corporations but out of respect for their human owners. And we should think twice before legally compelling corporate action, when that action would in practice imply forced labour for the corporation’s human employees.


MORE ABOUT BUSINESS ETHICS & TECHNOLOGY:

Get our daily briefing on innovation, leadership, technology & the economy.
Weekdays at 6 AM ET. Learn More »

Comments are closed.