The FBI now says they may not need Apple’s help to break into a terrorist’s iPhone, but for months they have insisted Apple’s programmers must write a program enabling them to bypass security on this and other Apple devices. The demand raised questions about security and surveillance in a time of rapid technological change. Apple’s refusal to comply stemmed from both a philosophical stance on privacy and concerns that such a program could easily be exploited. The company and its programmers further argued that code should be covered by free speech protections—no one can be forced to write code against their will. Sociological research shows how assumptions about the objectivity of computer code work against arguments like Apple’s and how these assumptions are often used to legitimize the policing of already marginalized populations.
Apple’s concerns about controlling how and when a “break-in” program gets used are valid. Not only can it fall into the hands of hackers and the like, technologies like this can be used by law enforcement to maintain social inequalities and reinforce harmful stereotypes. Sociologists show how computer code and surveillance technologies are not value-neutral, but are instead composed of the values and opinions of those who write and use them. The result is that the police often use these presumably objective technologies to justify intrusive policing of the already at-risk.
- Carrie Sanders and Stacey Hannem. 2012. “Policing ‘the Risky’: Technology and Surveillance in Everyday Patrol Work.” Canadian Review of Sociology 49(4):317-451.
- David Lyon. 2003. “Surveillance as Social Sorting: Computer Codes and Mobile Bodies.” Pp. 13-30 in Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Digital
Discrimination, edited by David Lyon. New York: Routledge.
From this perspective, it becomes easier to understand code as speech. Codes are the expression, intentional or otherwise, of the values and beliefs of the programmer. What makes code in some ways more powerful than speech is that it is also highly functional. Jennifer Peterson explains that code is at once the writing of a program as well as the program’s execution—it is both expressive and functional—but the legal system overlooks the functional capacity of code as speech and the ways that it can be used to protest, dissent, and discriminate.
- Jennifer Peterson. 2015. “Is Code Speech? Law and the Expressivity of Machine Language,” New Media & Society 17(3):415-431.
And for a great read on surveilling sociologists, check out Stalking the Sociological Imagination: J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI Surveillance of American Sociology by Mike Forrest Keen.