The popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is well-earned. Their stories (much like the “One Ring” featured in them) are simply too hard to resist. They present the classic theme of the struggle for social and political power, in this case by humans, elves, dwarves, and other beings driven by need or greed. The “power” at stake is intriguing and tangible: magical rings that enable their wearers to preserve and protect the quality of life in their respective cultures.

But these “Rings of Power” come with a catch. The instigator Sauron, who at first claims to represent the gods who watch over the world and on that basis is welcomed by the Elves and allowed to instruct and encourage them in the creation of the Rings, is in fact a Dark Lord intent upon ruling all of Middle-earth. He secretly forges one more ring — the “One Ring” to control all the others and their wearers. Yet he is soon found out and opposed, leading to numbers of battles and an all-encompassing chaos. The heroes in this history — such as the wizard Gandalf, the Half-elven lord Elrond, and the hobbits Frodo and Sam — finally succeed in undoing the One Ring and, with it, Sauron.

Tolkien wrote these stories around the time of World War II. In his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, he stated that his novels were neither topical nor allegorical, and that he disliked allegory “in all its manifestations,” much preferring history “with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.” In this vein it is thus fitting that present-day America can be seen as engaged in its own “Great War of the Ring.”

To what am I referring? Well, it helps to appreciate exactly what Sauron created the “One Ring” to do. The Dark Lord essentially wanted to “hack” all the other rings.

Enter Apple Inc. — its engineers as renowned as the ring-makers Celebrimbor and his Elven-smiths. Apple first introduced its beautifully crafted, marvelously functional, culture-enhancing iPhones in 2007. Of course there were other smart phones before then, but those earlier phones were — as Gandalf cared to describe the earlier and lesser magical rings — “only essays in the craft before it was full-grown.” The iPhone is the exemplary device of our modern digital culture. For any of us to possess and use an iPhone, or any of the subsequently inspired smartphones from other companies, is to gain and partake of a sophisticated and vibrant life. Or so many of us believe.

But in the wake of the San Bernardino attacks last year, a long-standing conflict has newly invaded our common interests, arguably threatening every person’s sense of self. The instigator is, varyingly, the F.B.I., N.S.A., or C.I.A., or more generally federal or state law enforcement — but in all events arguably a “Sauron” (who was known for his ability to assume a noble or fair appearance). The conflict is over the extent of the power of government to protect national security and investigate criminal activity, and to these ends override individual privacy by covert surveillance or the outright seizure and search of personal property, including computers and smart phones.

The roots of this conflict extend back to the 1990s when the federal government wanted to limit the use of encryption in computers, cell phones, and related devices. It largely lost on that score, but what with the 9/11 attacks and the generally felt need for government to become ever more vigilant, the balance between domestic security and personal privacy has only remained unsettled. However, the current conflict with Apple has the potential to serve as the paradigm that will determine that balance for sometime to come.

In the San Bernardino case, the F.B.I. wanted to learn the information stored on the perpetrators’ iPhone, but it was digitally “locked.” So the F.B.I. turned to Apple to create a new iPhone code that the F.B.I. could use to unlock and access the particular iPhone. But Apple refused to create the code, and the F.B.I. went to court to force Apple to do so. The case became moot when the F.B.I. successfully unlocked the iPhone by exploiting a security flaw discovered by a third party. Another similar case in New York has now also been resolved when a third party provided the password to the iPhone of a drug trafficker. But other criminal cases are pending and will only continue to arise such that the F.B.I. or other law enforcement agencies will want Apple to use its know-how to hack more iPhones.

Before the San Bernardino incident, Apple willingly assisted the F.B.I. to obtain personal information stored on a number of iPhones. But the company’s CEO Tim Cook — seemingly the “Elrond” of our time — came to see the new system code that the F.B.I. wanted Apple to make, and in future cases will likely continue to want it to make, as simply “too dangerous.” He has declared that “[t]he only way to guarantee that such a powerful tool isn’t abused and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands is to never create it.” (Emphasis added.)

Apple has gone even further in its new-found resolve. It has indicated that it will design future iPhones to be more and more impregnable to hacking, especially by the best efforts of Apple itself. Ideally, no overmastering hack could then ever be devised.

This “strategy” begs the question: is Apple’s stance sensible? I think not. It would aim in effect to elevate the right of privacy in this context into an absolute right. And in America that goal simply cannot be squared with the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which quite clearly implies that government may carry out searches and seizures that are “reasonable,” and by extension may do so successfully. Moreover, a smart phone that was virtually impregnable in both fact and law would easily facilitate and secure so-called dark nets among criminals and terrorists. Is that a future world that we digitally-empowered individuals would and should care to live in? I hope not.

But apparently it is for some of us, including many smartphone users. Which makes me wonder just what role these digital enthusiasts are playing. Ideally they should be “Frodos” or “Sams” who find smartphones quite useful yet remain wary of how their power can be abused, even by them. But I fear that those who support Apple’s current stance with its free-wheeling view of the world are instead “Gollums” – each too possessed of his or her “Precious.”

Yes, in recent months this controversy has taken on a distinct unreality. And that has to end. We should not empower “Saurons,” but neither should we enable “Gollums.” As our time-honored political and legal wisdom holds, we as citizens should seek a responsible, middle way in which no one — be it person, company, or agency — wields or enjoys absolute power over anyone’s digital life, including one’s own. The right of privacy and the duty of security must be balanced against each other so that both can be realistically fulfilled.

Which corresponds well with the ending of Tolkien’s fantasy saga. The allure and power of the Rings to dictate quality of life for better or for worse are diminished. And the real power to do good or evil remains centered, as it always has been and will be, in peoples’ hearts and minds, which are already difficult enough to master, let alone “hack.”

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

About The Author

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Bruce K. Adler is a retired lawyer whose legal practice involved products liability, commercial law, civil liberties, and constitutional law. He remains active in community affairs and local planning. His academic interests include the philosophy of law, social and political philosophy, and the history and philosophy of science. He is fascinated by the “problems” of consciousness and free will. And he feels inspired to do some serious writing on at least law and its related topics.