During a keynote speech at the 2016 SXSW Interactive Festival, President Barack Obama addressed some of the hot issues currently facing the technology community, including the debate over data privacy. Obama briefly touched on the Apple vs. FBI case in which the FBI wants Apple to create an iOS that will enable access to encrypted, password-protected data from the terrorists behind the San Bernardino shooting last year. Obama argued that in certain cases, there should be concessions around granting government access to data, or in a sense, he says, “…everybody is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket.”

While these are only sound bites that don’t include the full context and balance of Obama’s remarks, these excerpts are indicative of how politicized this issue has become. Particularly in an election year, this subject has become polarizing, and that presents risks for a decision with so much at stake.

The FBI is making allegations that Apple made accommodations for the Chinese government when it asked for help in accessing data, statements that could damage Apple’s public image. Apple is calling the government’s accusations a “cheap shot” because the case involved significantly different circumstances.

Either way, Apple could find itself in a no-win situation. If it gives in to the FBI’s request, it sets precedence for future similar requests, not just from the US government, but perhaps from other entities. This presents a deeper, inherent challenge of where to draw the line. If Apple escalates the fight up to the Supreme Court, the company could antagonize a significant faction of the American public and its customer base.

The debate doesn’t simply stop here. The final outcome of this heated battle could have even more damaging consequences for personal data privacy regulations, impacting the technology industry as a whole. Under current law, technology companies, including Apple, are free to implement the security provisions they feel are necessary to protect customers’ data and privacy. However, if the government puts legislation in place banning strong encryption methods for mobile devices or requiring companies to create back doors that circumvent encryption and security, the use of mobile technologies could be significantly dampened.

Customers need to trust that their devices are secure enough to protect their data from breach or misuse. This level of trust is important not only for mobile devices, but for all technologies that rely on customer data, particularly the Internet of Things (IoT).

The Apple vs. FBI argument’s increasingly prominent position in the political discussion does have a positive result; it is shining a spotlight on data privacy and security topics. It’s bringing these critical issues to the forefront of public attention, and people are beginning to recognize the importance of how our personally identifiable information (PII) is handled by businesses and governments.

Apple is a company that has always done a good job of protecting customer data, but there are many organizations that have data management systems with poor security. Whether this is the result of old, legacy systems or struggling to keep pace with the recent explosion of digital business and the need for customer data, many companies are focusing on security and privacy. This debate is another driver urging them to raise the bar.

There are some key ways a next-generation identity and access management (IAM) solution can help organizations improve data security. The right IAM solution can secure data with end-to-end encryption. It can secure data at rest by ensuring no one but the data owner can see it, even excluding administrators. It can also secure data in flight as it moves between data stores and devices by supporting encrypted tokens to authenticate users and provide access.

No matter the outcome, the Apple vs. FBI battle will set a higher bar for data security and privacy. Organizations that begin building a strong data security and privacy foundation now will be well positioned to address the new standards as they develop in the future.


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