New Delhi: There has been a uniquely American resolution to the court battle between the US Justice Department and Apple Inc over unlocking the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists, Rizwan Farooq, who was eventually brought down. This writer is not particularly excited by the latest communication technologies and keeps a rather outdated and featureless mobile himself, but the case presents interesting implications and is as such eminently analysable.

When the case came for further hearing before a federal magistrate in Riverside, California, the Justice Department said that it had managed to unlock Farooq’s iPhone and was dropping the lawsuit against Apple. Apple had refused in the first instance to assist the Justice Department with the phone and was fighting the magistrate’s order compelling it to do so. The Department disclosed that an “unidentified outside party” had made available a technique to crack the phone.

Who wins and who loses in this case?

Nobody really, though Apple scarcely emerges from it smelling of roses.

At all events, the case is interesting and uniquely American in its features.

The debate of national security versus individual privacy is an old and perhaps cliched one, and little is gained retreading the same ground. In their separate enclaves, national security and individual privacy are equally important, sacrosanct, and non-negotiable. But in certain situations, concerns of national security do trump those of preserving individual privacy, and the state must gain the upper hand.

The state, however, is neither pure nor innocent. A right against individual privacy that it gains in pressing circumstances may be misused in future. In America, privacy issues are taken very seriously. There was outrage during the presidency of George W. Bush when it was noticed that the CIA was spying within the country. And J. Edgar Hoover has left generations of Americans paranoid about the FBI, and often without good reason.

If the Riverside federal magistrate had persisted with his order compelling Apple to assist the Justice Department, it would have opened a Pandora’s Box. The case then had all the likelihood of travelling up to the US Supreme Court. It would be fascinating how the highest court in the land weighed on the matter. It has not come to that, at least not yet. No less exhilarating is how the issue resolved itself.

There is a warning and threat here for technology companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. They cannot cock a snook at genuine demands of national security. The right to privacy of individuals as phone owners and otherwise is not absolute and certainly cannot be placed above national security. But rather than establish a legal precedent, a middle course has been found.

Apple and other high-tech phone-makers should accept that there will always be individuals and entities in the private sector that can penetrate their most secure offerings. This is not such a bad thing actually. If it assists national security, why not?

This sort of low key, third party intervention secures the nation without compromising mass privacy. Mass privacy would be invaded if phone-breaking techniques and technologies are commercialised or made freely available. There is no danger of this currently.

The Justice Department and the FBI which together possess the method to open iPhones are unwilling to commit to sharing this with state law enforcement agencies. They don’t say no either. The issue will present itself in a pressing manner sooner or later and a call would have to be taken.

Should the hacking technique be shared with Apple, which will promptly immunize its future models against it? No. Apple had an obligation to assist in the investigations of the San Bernardino killings. National and social responsibilities are higher than corporate ones. Apple did not. The US government has no favours to return.

The beauty of the case is that there is a sense of natural justice about it. Apple was indecent to the memory of the victims of the shootings. Some anonymous hackers played the role of good Samaritans. On the other hand, the court barely avoided strong-arming the state to the general detriment of individual privacy.

The last has not been heard of this case, though.