Wanted: people of vision

When we think of visionary leaders, we normally think of statesmen (perhaps statespeople now?), the very cream of politicians. Each of our nations has rightly recognised the likes of Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, Churchill, de Gaulle, Weizsäcker, and others. For all their human failings, each had a vision for the future of their nation, and each strove for that goal, often to their own cost.

Business, on the other hand, has inevitably made profit as its primary vision. Although the Frys, Cadburys, Fords, Watsons, and other great industrialists may have brought great changes to society, their fundamental motive remained business success.

It is therefore odd to discover that we live in an age when those we expect to be more visionary – Obama and US presidential candidates, Cameron, and other EU leaders – prove to be opportunists whose vision seems to peter out a month into the future, but some business leaders, Tim Cook in this case, has more vision, morals, and guts than the politicians put together.

Apple’s stand over FBI demands that it tamper with an iPhone to enable that Bureau to access that phone’s contents may seem just a business decision. Often branded a consummate logistician without vision or inspiration, Tim Cook has demonstrated that here he can see far further than the politicians.

He, and Apple, can see that this issue is not about hacking into a single iPhone. It is about whether Apple keeps its promises to customers, about whether a product manufacturer can be compelled under current law to do anything and everything which law enforcement might feel helpful to them, about whether the state should protect privacy or attack it, and about whether we want to set in chain actions which will ultimately weaken or destroy the core of electronic security.

Today’s crop of politicians, apparently in almost any nation you care to examine, seem to be too opportunistic to care about promises. Most get elected on the strength of all manner of promises, and then spend their term heading in the opposite direction. Apple means what it says about not getting involved in accessing our encrypted data, however right or wrong you might think that is.

If you feel that someone else should have a right to access all the data on your computers, phones, and other devices, then by all means buy their products. There are plenty of other manufacturers who have not come out in support of Apple’s position, who I am sure will be only too happy to work with any agency which wants to dig through your private data.

Our leaders have also showed extraordinary and sustained contempt for constitutions and human rights in their ‘war against terror’, which has gone far beyond the measures adopted during the Second World War, for instance. The whole purpose of those constitutions and other enumerations of human rights is that they provide the skeleton on which our ‘free and democratic’ societies depend. Without open and free democracies and robust legal systems to protect the individual, we are actually no better than the terrorists and criminals who we claim to be opposing.

Most of our nations, certainly the US and UK, are currently engaged in campaigns driven by law enforcement and security agencies to empower those agencies to do almost anything that they wish in respect of our personal and private information. Instead of our politicians having the vision of their predecessors to protect their citizens, they are happy to roll over and give those agencies whatever powers they wish.

There is hardly a politician of any weight who has been prepared to stand up and state that this is wrong, and in conflict with the needs of an open and free democracy. Instead most seem to think, misguidedly, that there is some clever way of acceding to the wishes of the agencies without causing the disaster of which experts repeatedly warn.

Only Tim Cook has made it clear that this is not about one iPhone and one legal case. It is about every iPhone, about every computer, device, and communication which we make. It is also about the security that our banking, healthcare, and other sectors depend upon. Once this precedent is set, it will make it well nigh impossible for any electronic information to remain private.

It is that vision, not just the rich profits from selling iPhones, which makes this stand so important.

There is also irony that, by the time this case has progressed to its ultimate appeal in the US Supreme Court, the data on the iPhone in question will have become all but irrelevant.