Authoritarian governments including Russia and China will demand greater access to mobile data should Apple lose a watershed encryption case brought by the FBI, leading technology analysts, privacy experts and legislators have warned.
Apple’s decision to resist a court order to unlock a password-protected iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino killers has created a worldwide privacy shockwave, with campaigners around the world expecting the struggle to carry major implications for the future of mobile and internet security.
They warned that Barack Obama’s criticism of a similar Chinese measure last year now risked ringing hollow.
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a leading legislator on privacy and tech issues, warned the FBI to step back from the brink or risk setting a precedent for authoritarian countries.
“This move by the FBI could snowball around the world. Why in the world would our government want to give repressive regimes in Russia and China a blueprint for forcing American companies to create a backdoor?” Wyden told the Guardian.
“Companies should comply with warrants to the extent they are able to do so, but no company should be forced to deliberately weaken its products. In the long run, the real losers will be Americans’ online safety and security.”
Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said the FBI was using an “unprecedented reading of a nearly 230-year old law” that put “at risk the foundations of strong security for our people and privacy in the digital age.
“If upheld, this decision could force US technology companies to actually build hacking tools for government against their will, while weakening cybersecurity for millions of Americans in the process,” Wyden said.
Should the FBI prevail, and Apple create what is functionally a custom-built version of its mobile operating system, governments around the world “will see this as a blank check of legitimacy”, said human rights lawyer Carly Nyst, who called the Apple showdown “groundbreaking”.
In a defiant statement late on Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook said the FBI had no way to ensure that the effect of its access would stay in US government hands. “The technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices” once Apple builds it, Cook warned.
US-based tech firms have long dealt with efforts by countries worldwide to undermine user security in the name of law enforcement and national security – terms that vary widely with government prerogative. China in particular has fought with Apple over the iPhone, in a struggle that echoes the FBI’s latest move.
Chinese state media in 2014 labeled the iPhone a national security threat for collecting location data from users and compromising “state secrets”. The accusation, coming after leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency had hacked Chinese tech giant Huawei, prompted Cook to defend the devices’ security features.
“Apple has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will,” Cook said at the time.
The Obama administration and US security services consider Chinese-aided data breaches to comprise a major national security threat, which has prompted privacy advocates to voice alarm that US government actions to undermine encryption will backfire as foreign hackers exploit mandated vulnerabilities.
The impact of the mutual distrust between Washington and Beijing can be seen in China’s new cybersecurity and counter-terrorism bill, passed last December. The far-reaching law mandates that internet firms and telecos doing business in China provide law enforcement with decryption keys in terrorism cases. Analysts and foreign firms are waiting to see how far China goes in enforcing the controversial measure, particularly in light of Apple’s standoff with the FBI.
Last March, Obama personally objected to the Chinese law as a draconian measure that would force US firms to “turn over to the Chinese government mechanisms where they can snoop and keep track of all the users of those services.” Obama said he had personally raised the issue with Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart.
“Imagine how hollow these objections will ring if a US court can order what China was trying to compel by statute,” said Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
“The fact that such requests may be forthcoming from authoritarian countries if Apple is forced to comply with US law enforcement requests is reason enough why the Apple position should be respected,” said Christopher Wolf, the director of the privacy and information management practice at the law firm Hogan Lovells.
“At the moment, Apple is not responding to foreign law enforcement [demands to] unlock devices. It’s a matter of time until China, Russia Bahrain, take your pick, come knocking too,” said Eric King, director of the UK-based Don’t Spy On Us coalition.
But it is not just the US authorities which are opening a path for others to undermine privacy. King and others have warned that the UK’s proposed investigatory powers bill would represent a “snooper’s charter”, giving the government broad authority to water down encryption standards and, once armed with a warrant, force a firm to turn over encrypted communications.
Foreign firms like Apple are concerned that the bill’s extraterritorial claims could “force them to re-architecture systems like iMessage and build in a backdoor,” King said, underscoring that concerns about government access to communications data are not limited to authoritarian states.