A U.S. magistrate judge has ordered Apple to build new software that would effectively weaken encryption security for the iPhone. Tim Cook responded in strong opposition to the order publicly and in a letter to his customers. The result is a showdown between a federal magistrate and one of America's more innovative and trusted technology companies. The showdown has many practical implications, but also forces us to consider three essential questions as consumers, companies, and Americans: can weakening security make us more secure? How much intrusion and oversight are we willing to give the government in the name of protection? And, can the government make an American company build a product it doesn't want to build?
It should be a given, but must be said, combating terrorism is a top priority for tech industry leaders. This is not and cannot be a litmus test of patriotism. Just this month Google announced its internal think tank Jigsaw would be expanding its mission “to use technology to tackle the toughest geopolitical challenges, from countering violent extremism to thwarting online censorship to mitigating the threats associated with digital attacks.” Twitter has proactively suspended 125,000 accounts “for threatening or promoting terrorist acts.” Apple is no exception, regularly working with and in support of law enforcement.
The magistrate's order is a bridge too far. To force a company under court order to provide special access into mobile devices means personal conversations becoming public, bank transactions effectively taking place in a glass house, and health data become available for anyone to see. Encryption isn’t designed to only work sometimes. Encryption is designed to work all the time, keeping everyone but the user out.
Policies that weaken encryption demonstrate a lack of understanding when it comes to protecting vital, personal, and sensitive information. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump responded by attacking Apple, a company whose encryption is lauded by even law enforcement for protecting Americans’ private data, claiming a security imperative to “open it up.” One would expect a candidate so invested in “walls” to understand the importance of firewalls, or at least to appreciate that once we cross this line there is no going back. Reactionary policies and short-term thinking harms American security and those who support efforts to tear down the very encryption that protects Americans’ data are wrong.
Finally, most alarming in this entire debate is the magistrate’s order to force Apple - a publicly held company - to create a product it does not believe should be built. The precedent it sets could lead to judges compelling other companies to create products against their will, their self interest, and the interests of their investors. This potential burden would fall heaviest on small developers who might not have the financial resources or technical expertise to create such a product. The magistrate’s decision to force an American company to create a product that intentionally weakens security and makes the entire nation less safe flies in the face of common sense, and most importantly, American ideals.
The Alliance understands that given the rapidly-changing technology world, reactionary policies that give in to short-term demands and public pressure are not easy to resist. However, lawmakers and the law enforcement community must resist that pressure and have the foresight to embrace technology and encryption as a way to protect American citizens. The best way to defend against terrorism is not to develop policies that play into fear, but rather to seek and employ the counsel and advice of experts and industry leaders to promote long-term strategies that protect technology users across the globe.
Read more from the Alliance on encryption: