Special to WorldTribune.com
They used to say the walls have ears.
That was in a bygone era when eavesdroppers strained through ceilings and doors, peepholes and cracks to catch the incriminating words of enemy agents, political foes and adulterous spouses. Plenty of old-time movies revolve around scenes such as these.
We have come a long way since then. For years we have been hearing stories about intelligence agents bugging telephones and planting listening devices under desks, chairs and beds. We have grown up knowing nothing is secret, nothing sacred.
What is new, though, are the highest of hi-tech means of tracking down enemies and criminals, business competitors and ex-lovers. That is the topic of debate everywhere, nowhere so impassioned as in the U.S. or, for that matter, South Korea.
In the U.S., debate focuses on Apple CEO Tim Cook, who does not want the FBI penetrating the technology in its iPhones to find out who the San Bernardino shooters were calling before they shot and killed 14 people and wounded 22 others last December. The FBI thinks the phone records could lead to the circles in which they were moving and to whoever ordered the shooting.
A lot of people would like answers to those questions.
Cook, however, cites privacy ― or secrecy. Apple needs to protect its technology so the FBI will not be able to snoop at will among millions of others. That is a pretty good argument but breaks down when you consider the enormity of the crime or the rich lode of information the FBI could mine if only it could see who these two were calling.
Also, you have to wonder whose interests Cook is shielding. He is an enormously wealthy man who earns far more in a month than most people will see in their lives. He is protecting himself and his company, but isn’t there a need that supersedes one tycoon’s defense of his interest, that is, his self-interest?
The answer is yes and no. For sure, the FBI might exploit its knowledge of Apple’s innermost design secrets to grope around thousands of records. Who would believe that a national intelligence agency would be so trustworthy as to avoid going after people for totally the wrong reasons?
On the other side of the ledger, though, how can bad guys go around shielding themselves behind the refusal of one fabulously wealthy company to hide what it knows from law enforcement? Can’t a court issue a search warrant for exploration of a killer’s phone as it would for searching a house? And shouldn’t Apple be compelled to cooperate?
That question gets to the anti-terrorism law that the South Korean government believes it needs to go after some of the worst terrorists ― those sent by North Korea to spy in the South and conduct acts of espionage.
The obvious argument against this law is that the National Intelligence Service, like the American FBI or CIA, might abuse the law for other purposes.
What better way to chase after critics with total impunity than demand to see the phone records and bank accounts of those who someone in high places does not like? Who would believe, after all the scandals over the years, that the NIS would not, in some contingency, resort to such tactics?
But there is also “on the other hand.” The other side of the story is that North Korea for sure has sent agents to the South ― and the NIS would like to go after them without all the hassle of a court-ordered warrant. Tensions with the North are not getting any easier. Sometimes you get the impression the peculiar standoff under which North and South have been coexisting for all these decades is too fragile to go on much longer.
The case of the FBI versus Apple and the debate over the anti-terrorism law in South Korea are examples of the much larger questions of secrecy and privacy versus the need to protect people from the evil around them. Courts may get into the act, issuing rulings and setting precedents, but there is no way to be sure who is right or wrong.
It is easy to jump to conclusions, to condemn or defend the FBI, Apple, the NIS ― or, for that matter, the long-winded politicians who are dead set against the anti-terrorism law. For sure, we will see many more such cases in the years ahead.
Frankly, though, like millions of others, I am really curious to know who the San Bernardino killers were calling.
How could two people, seemingly well adjusted to life in the U.S., with decent jobs and a child, whom they dumped at grandma’s house on their way to the slaughter, behave as they did? Whatever the record of phone calls may tell, I’m all ears.
Donald Kirk has been covering issues of war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.