It’s Silicon Valley vs Washington DC as Google joins Apple in privacy fight

18 Feb 2016

Once back doors have been opened into encrypted accounts, where do we draw the line and ensure users' privacy will be respected?

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has added his voice to Apple CEO Tim Cook’s stand against US lawmakers over demands by the US government that Apple unlock an encrypted iPhone 5 owned by a gunman involved in the San Bernardino attack.

Yesterday, Tim Cook said that Apple will resist attempts by FBI agents to compel them to unlock the iPhone. Cook, who has long warned against allowing a backdoor into Apple’s messaging systems, said he would oppose a US court order ordering the tech giant to unlock the device.

“The US government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook in a statement after the ruling.

“We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand. This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake.”

And it looks like Apple won’t be standing alone, as it appears Google has weighed in on the issue of device encryption. Google CEO Sundar Pichai posted five tweets on the matter supporting Tim Cook.

Google joins Apple in encryption fight

Pichai said that Cook was right in pointing out that 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 and data. Could be a troubling precedent.”

It was quite telling that Pichai chose Twitter rather than the usual Google+ platform to make his point. He wanted to make it clear far and wide that Washington has struck a nerve with Silicon Valley on the principle of privacy.

But it isn’t only Pichai who is weighing in behind Cook. Reform Government Surveillance, an advocacy group supported by other tech giants, including Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter, has also leaped to Apple’s defence.

Without mentioning Cook or Apple, it paraphrased Cook’s oft-repeated point that tech companies “should not be required to build” backdoors into users’ private communications.

But here is the rub: how far must tech companies go to cooperate with law enforcement without compromising privacy principles?

Could Apple, in general, face a PR backlash from the US public who are more emotionally invested in bringing perpetrators to justice over the killings than in legal and philosophical discussions around privacy and principles.

At a recent event in Dublin, Cook told students why privacy matters in this digital age: “People want to take your data, there are bad governments in the world and bad people in the world and if you leave a backdoor in software there’s no such thing as a backdoor for the good guys only.”

And this is the heart of the issue. In the fallout of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA spying on internet users all over the world, once governments get past encryption how can anybody know that the privacy of innocent people will be protected or respected.

Where do we draw the line?

Washington DC image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years