The ethics of unbreakable encryption: Rawlsian privacy and the San Bernardino iPhone


  • Morten Bay UCLA Department of Information Studies



encryption, iphone, apple, fbi, john rawls, ethics, unbreakable, cryptography, impenetrable, social cooperation, well-ordered society, maximin, privacy, citizens, rights,


Inspired by the 2016 case of the encrypted Apple iPhone used by alleged terrorists in the San Bernardino, Calif. attack, this paper explores the question of whether the use of completely unbreakable encryption online or off-line would be considered ethical by the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls is widely acknowledged as having played an important role in how we perceive freedom and liberty in Western democracies today, and his work on justice, fairness and liberty appears to be a great source of knowledge for politicians, policy-makers and activists. Several recent events and threats to national security of a technological nature have raised ethical questions about the relationship between state and citizen and how technological power should be divided between these two parties, particularly when it comes to the right to privacy. However, in contrast with a wide-spread perception of Rawls’ work, this article shows that there are cases in which Rawls’ principles actually place a limitation on liberty in these matters. This paper presents a thought experiment in which it becomes clear that Rawls’ advocacy for liberty did not extend to cases in which social cooperation in a well-ordered society would be obstructed. Based on a study of Rawls’ work, the author concludes that whereas Rawls would consider strong encryption both necessary and ethical, completely unbreakable encryption would be considered a violation of social cooperation and thus indefensible for Rawls.

Author Biography

Morten Bay, UCLA Department of Information Studies

Morten Bay is a Ph.D. candidate in Information Studies at UCLA. His research interests revolve around the Internet and other networks and how they impact society, ethics, culture and conceptions of reality along diverse avenues, ranging from national security to the proliferation and distribution of news, data and information. He has written four books on these topics which also are at the center of the work he has done in his 20-year career as a journalist.




How to Cite

Bay, M. (2017). The ethics of unbreakable encryption: Rawlsian privacy and the San Bernardino iPhone. First Monday, 22(2).