Ever since Edward Snowden revealed the extent of mass surveillance of private communications by the US and UK intelligence agencies, technology groups and governments have had an increasingly fractious relationship.
The American and British security services insist they must maintain the right to penetrate secure networks to combat the growing threat of jihadi terror. The US tech companies counter that they should be allowed to protect customer privacy. The FBI has now brought this stand-off to a head with a court order requiring Apple to help unblock an iPhone used by one of the perpetrators of the fatal San Bernardino shooting last December.
Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has decided to challenge the order, voicing his company’s strong objection to a “chilling” example of “over-reach by the US government”. After the Snowden revelations, Apple, like other tech companies, is entitled to scrutinise any such request carefully. But Mr Cook’s outright resistance in this particular case is a serious misjudgment.
The San Bernardino murders took place in Apple’s home state of California. Fourteen people died and 22 were injured. The perpetrators, Syed Rizwan Farook, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, were later killed in a police shootout. The FBI is seeking access to the contents of Farook’s iPhone. Apple makes a commercial virtue of the fact it cannot itself reach the data on iPhones, but a court has ordered it to create software that would allow the FBI to circumvent certain security measures, using an identifier supplied by Apple specifically for Farook’s device.
Mr Cook argues these measures would “undeniably create a backdoor” to every iPhone. If the FBI were seeking blanket access to private data on all iPhones that would be a legitimate concern. The FBI is doing no such thing. It wants to decrypt this particular handset. Any subsequent use of the software would require a separate court order, a vital safeguard.
Mr Cook’s message to customers implies a further concern that granting access to this iPhone will set a precedent for other governments to make similar demands. True, Apple would find it harder to resist orders to help authorities from less friendly jurisdictions; and it is possible to imagine prosecutors in, say, China or the Middle East demanding access to the devices of dissidents or troublemakers. Even so, it is equally possible to imagine situations, such as a murder investigation, where Apple could and should co-operate with any prosecuting authority.
The FBI’s case is strong. Indeed, it could hardly be stronger. It has not mounted a vague fishing expedition. It wants to investigate an act of terrorism carried out by US citizens, on US citizens, on US soil.
Mr Cook’s firm initial response to the court order has won support from other tech companies, such as Google and WhatsApp, and applause from privacy campaigners, including Mr Snowden himself. He tweeted that it was “the most important tech case in a decade”. But Apple’s chief executive has overplayed his hand. He should back down and, subject to specific safeguards, enable FBI access to this device.
There is a broader point. Mr Cook may say he is acting to protect the privacy of all iPhone users. But Apple and other US technology companies sometimes give the impression that they float above national jurisdictions, notably in tax and other regulatory matters. The San Bernardino case should concentrate minds. Apple, and others, need to realise that, however powerful they are, and however popular their products, they do not live in a moral universe of their own creation.