This week, a federal judge ordered Apple to provide technical assistance to the FBI in order to make it easier for the FBI to brute-force the PIN of the iPhone 5C owned by the San Bernardino shooter. The request included having Apple send a malicious update in the form of a custom operating system image with removed security protections to that phone.
Apple has refused because it worries this could set a dangerous precedent and could lead to the government forcing the company to weaken the security of all of its devices in order to comply with such orders, which could leave everyone more exposed to digital attacks.
Some companies have spoken out in support of Apple’s position, while others seem to have been a little more careful in their statements or even silent about this issue.
Google was one of the first companies to speak out about it. Its CEO, Sundar Pichai released the following statement as a series of tweets:
“Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy. We know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism. We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent,” said Pichai.
Google has followed Apple in mandating that all Android 6.0 devices and beyond are encrypted by default (with some exceptions for low-end phones that have slow flash storage), so this case could have significant implications for Android phones, as well.
Whatsapp’s founder, Jan Koum, whose chat application has embraced end-to-end encryption, also made a comment about this, defending Apple:
"I have always admired Tim Cook for his stance on privacy and Apple's efforts to protect user data and couldn't agree more with everything said in their Customer Letter today. We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake," wrote Koum.
Whatsapp is now owned by Facebook, but so far Facebook hasn’t released a statement of its own. Whatsapp faced a ban in Brazil last year for similar reasons, and Facebook was quick to condemn the move by the lower Court judge then.
Microsoft, Twitter and Amazon have also been silent thus far. Some of these companies have also tightened their relationship with the U.S. government in the past few years. Twitter has become more willing to employ censorship, not just in the U.S., but all over the world; Amazon has the CIA as one of its largest cloud service customers; and Microsoft has just signed a large deal with the Pentagon to standardize its PCs on Windows 10.
Not having as close of a relationship with the U.S. government may be why Apple is more willing to fight hard against what it believes are abuses of power and a dangerous slippery slope for digital privacy rights in the U.S..
The only thing coming close to a reaction from these companies is a response from the Reform Government Surveillance group, which does include Apple itself, as well as Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook:
“Reform Government Surveillance companies believe it is extremely important to deter terrorists and criminals and to help law enforcement by processing legal orders for information in order to keep us all safe. But technology companies should not be required to build in backdoors to the technologies that keep their users’ information secure,” said the coalition’s official statement.“RGS companies remain committed to providing law enforcement with the help it needs while protecting the security of their customers and their customers’ information,” the group added.
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu.