Had a bank behaved in the manner in which Apple has recently regarding its refusal to unlock the smartphone of a terrorist, the criticism and fines would have been both swift and sizeable. Brian Caplen argues that tech companies should be as accountable as their financial counterparts when it comes to the war on terrorism.

Banks are rightly under huge pressure to prevent funds from criminals or terrorists flowing through their systems. The scale of fines they have received for failing to have adequate prevention in place has pushed them into being overcautious on the matter. 

In the UK, the number of suspicious transaction reports filed by banks to law enforcement agencies has increased from 9000 in 2002 to close to 400,000 a year more recently. But such a deluge of information makes it harder for the investigators to pick out the transactions they really need to be concerned about. A way of reducing the number of filings needs to be found. 

Tech companies, however, which have not been subjected to the same barrage of bad publicity as the banks, seem to think they occupy a privileged position when it comes to co-operating with the authorities to fight terrorism. 

The latest news from Brussels – with explosions at the city's airport and metro system – confirms that terrorist activity is not going to be eradicated any time soon. Indeed, the targets for criminals are not only innocent travellers, but also central banks, as shown by the theft of $81m from the Bangladeshi central bank in February. While these two types of criminal activity are completely different, there is one link – the use of technology. Whether it be a smartphone used for communications or a malware programme designed to extract sensitive data, technology usage will have played a role. 

Tech companies, like banks, need to realise that they have a responsibility to assist in every possible way in the tracking down of such criminals. That’s why Apple is wrong in its decision to play the data privacy card in a stand off with the FBI over whether it should give investigators access to an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who, along with his wife, killed 14 people in a terrorist attack in southern California last December.

In any case, Apple’s brinkmanship may be short lived. It now appears that the FBI has found someone with the expertise to unlock the phone, and as a result a court hearing to resolve the issue has been called off. 

What this development and the Bangladesh heist reveal is a simple truth – however sophisticated the technology is, someone will sooner or later find a way of subverting it. Tech companies, banks and law enforcement should all be working together to ensure that that someone is not using the knowledge for illegal purposes.

Brian Caplen is the editor of The Banker.

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