Dear Attorney General Lynch,
As writers and artists, we join PEN American Center in calling on you to end the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s efforts to force Apple to create software that could effectively enable the U.S. government to unlock any iPhone.
We were horrified and outraged by the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, and we recognize the need to ensure strong protections for national security. However, what the FBI is asking Apple to do would erode the vital U.S. values of free expression and privacy, and could endanger writers and human rights advocates in countries around the world.
We share PEN’s longstanding concerns about the complex relationship between privacy, digital technologies, government surveillance, and free expression. PEN has documented the measurable impact of how intrusions on privacy damage creative expression and free speech in two surveys of writers around the world released in 2013 and 2015, which demonstrate that mass government surveillance — knowledge that the government has the ability to track down and review virtually any personal communication or content — prompts writers to engage in self-censorship, avoiding speaking or writing about particular topics.
The current debate poses this issue in stark terms — the government’s rationale for seeking the data in the San Bernardino gunman's phone is legitimate. We all want to take aggressive steps to reduce the threat of terrorism, deter and punish terrorists, and expose the networks that plot and carry out attacks. The prospect that a phone recovered in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attacks may shed light on those brutal killings or even hold clues to possible future attacks is compelling and it is understandable to want to exhaust every means to uncover what is locked within that device. Countering terror is as difficult and important a responsibility as any that our government shoulders.
But the government has an equally weighty duty to preserve and protect our constitution and the freedoms that make this country great. The right to privacy is not an abstract or fungible good. It is a set of protections that sets the U.S. apart and has allowed expression, literature, culture, intellectual life, and creativity to flourish. The concerns Apple has raised about its inability to unlock this phone without the risk of compromising hundreds of millions of others in use the world over must be taken seriously. While any of us individually might be willing to sacrifice a measure of privacy to enable an important investigation to proceed, making that decision collectively and irreversibly on behalf of all consumers everywhere would upset a long-held balance whereby the burden is on the government to demonstrate why privacy rights are outweighed by other compelling interests. The consequences of forcing Apple to create software that effectively creates a back door into its encryption systems are serious: such an outcome will put hundreds of millions of people on notice that their texts, emails, documents, photos, videos, poems, stories, and creations may no longer be secure, and that they had better keep that in mind as they draft, develop, and dream. Such an outcome will signal to repressive governments that the end goal of countering terrorism, however that enemy may be defined, can justifiably override civil liberties protections, and will no doubt prompt these regimes to demand that Apple assist them in breaking into the personal devices of political dissidents and human rights activists. Such an outcome will signal that the delicate balance between security and liberty that has been the pride of this country is more precarious than we thought, and that we cannot know what rights and freedoms may be the next to be taken away.
Apple has taken a courageous position in standing up for privacy and liberty when the stakes are so high. The company should not be put in a position where protecting the rights of its customers requires it to defy the law. We urge the Justice Department to end its efforts to compel Apple’s assistance in its investigation.
Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket)
Andrew J. Nathan