Apple should help the FBI unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino terrorist

Oscar Cozza, Visual Media Editor

The threat of terrorism in the 21st century is unique from it’s presence in any other time period. Even 20 years ago, terrorism was a very different phenomena from what it is today, and that is because of a powerful change – the popularization of the Internet. For the first time in human history, terrorists are being created completely isolated from the movements that inspire their actions. Because of this dramatically heightened risk, it is of paramount importance that the government has the means to infiltrate and abolish online terrorist networks.

The recent San Bernardino terrorist attack highlights the need for the government to have the resources necessary to fight homegrown terrorism on the digital front. Right now, Apple is refusing to build software to allow the FBI to unlock the terrorist’s phone – which could contain information valuable to the prevention of future attacks by terrorists inspired by ISIS propaganda on the Internet.

The Internet has changed nearly everything about our lives. A consumer can purchase items from a different continent and have it shipped to their home overnight. A person living in Japan can instantly send photos to a friend in Brazil. Our entire world has undergone a profound change – we are infinitely more connected than ever before. These changes have made radicalization much more easy and terrorism much more accessible.

The 20th-century terrorist was typically a member of a hardcore cell of dedicated members and was subject to intense indoctrination. Today, terrorists have been increasingly radicalized online, completely independent of the groups that drive their actions. In many cases, they don’t even know any other members of the movements that they identify with in real life.

Radicalization has increasingly moved from the shadows of underground extremist groups to out in the open on the Internet. The profile of a terrorist has become that of an antisocial teen who turns to the Internet to cope with social rejection and/or mental health issues. Terrorist groups, especially ISIS, have begun using tactics to radicalize youth online that closely resemble the ways a pedophile or other sexual predator preys upon teenagers online. This is a entirely different kind of threat from what counter-terrorists were fighting before – for the first time in history, terrorism can strike anytime and anywhere.

The recent San Bernardino attacks are a perfect example of this new type of homegrown terrorism. Perpetrators Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik never personally knew any terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. They never met any members of any radical Islamist group. Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, James Comey, said that they were “consuming poison on the Internet” that lead to their radicalization over a long period of time. Farook and Malik were inspired – but never directed – by Islamist extremist groups such as ISIS. In the 20th century, an attack like this never would have been possible. These people never met a terrorist, were never part of a terrorist cell and never were exposed to terroristic ideas outside of the internet. Prior to the creation and popularization of the internet, an attack like this would have to have been carefully planned and the terrorists professionally trained. The advent of the digital age has made terrorism into an almost trivial act.

It is because of all these reasons that I believe it is absolutely necessary for the FBI to have access to the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone. The FBI is adapting to the new and unique threat of homegrown terrorism made possible by the internet – and they can’t effectively combat it without the tools they need. Unlocking an iPhone is a relatively trivial matter, and there is no reason to suspect that the FBI would ever unlock a civilian’s iPhone unless the circumstances are extraordinary. The data encrypted in the phone could potentially help the FBI find out where terrorists are becoming radicalized online or help uncover a digital network of ISIS sympathizers. The positives of unlocking the phone clearly outweigh the negatives.