Are Apple engineers willing to walk out amid encryption battle?

18 Mar 2016

The convoluted encryption battle between US authorities and Apple may take a surprising twist, with reports of potential staff walk-outs should iOS software be undermined by court order.

Yesterday, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Access Now and the American Civil Liberties Union wrote a joint statement on what they perceive to be “the fight of every person”, calling for support behind Apple’s encryption stance.

“This is a fight that implicates all technology users,” reads the statement, explaining that an FBI-ordered backdoor into iOS “will only assist” efforts by bad actors already present on the world stage.

“Once this has been created, malicious hackers will surely increase their attacks on the FBI and Apple, hoping to ferret out clues to this entrance route – and they may well succeed.”

However, far from the industrial and societal risk warned against, for Apple it could prove even more tangible a defeat should it lose its case with the US government.

A report in the New York Times citing more than half a dozen current and former Apple employees claims some staff will be so dismayed at the idea of finding a way through the software they themselves created that a walk-out is on the cards.

“It’s an independent culture and a rebellious one,” said Jean-Louis Gassée, a venture capitalist who was once an engineering manager at Apple. “If the government tries to compel testimony or action from these engineers, good luck with that.”

Apple’s dispute surrounds a shooting in December, with the San Bernardino shooter’s phone currently encrypting what US law enforcement claim to be relevant information to the case.

The FBI wants legal powers to force Apple to bypass its encryption to allow access to the phone’s contents. However, a judge in a separate case has already noted how the US government has not demonstrated, or even stated, that it would be unable to access the iPhone by itself.

Main image via Ivyphotos/Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic