Apple Leads the Charge on Security, But Who Will Follow?

After boldly and publicly rejecting a federal court order to hack an iPhone on Wednesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook could reasonably have wondered: Who’s with me?

The Twitterverse was full of fans. Civil liberties activists were cheering him on. But in Silicon Valley, the initial response was less effusive.

Google, the other tech behemoth that has promised to make encryption, security, and privacy a priority—but has stalled in implementing unbreakable encryption on its services by default—was notably silent for most of the day. But then Google CEO Sundar Pichai expressed his support in a series of tweets: “Important post by @tim_cook,” he wrote.

“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. Looking forward to a thoughtful and open discussion on this important issue.”

A handful of tech companies and leaders had joined Cook’s call by late afternoon. Among them were Mozilla, anonymous search engine DuckDuckGo, messaging application WhatsApp founder Jan Koum, anonymous browser Tor Project, a private jet charter company, and password managers 1Password and Dashlane.

“It’s difficult to discuss policy and precedent in the wake of horrific attacks. Yet, it remains true that asking Apple to circumvent their own security protections is a massive overreach,” said Mark Surman, Mozilla’s executive director, in a statement emailed to The Intercept. “It sets a dangerous precedent that threatens consumers’ security going forward.”

“I have always admired Tim Cook for his stance on privacy and Apple’s efforts to protect user data …We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake,” wrote WhatsApp’s Koum on Facebook.

Microsoft, Yahoo, IBM, Samsung, and others remained quiet.

Blackberry CEO John Chen has proposed a “middle ground” where tech companies never refuse law enforcement requests for information, but reject “attempts by federal agencies to overstep”—exactly how Cook characterizes the court order. A spokesperson for Blackberry said the company was “declining to comment this time.”

Technology companies have been swept up in a very public, contentious debate about whether or not law enforcement should be allowed special access to their stored, encrypted communications to hunt for criminals.

Scientists say it would rip open a hole in security ripe for exploitation by criminals and foreign governments.

A federal magistrate judge in California on Tuesday ordered Apple to help the government break into an iPhone belonging to San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. Judge Sheri Pym asked the company to develop a new version of the iPhone’s iOS operating system that would allow the FBI to break into it, giving agents access to everything on the phone, including the encrypted bits.

Many top tech companies, from Adobe to Yahoo, have made statements not only in defense of strong encryption, but also opposed to the government mandating any sort of technological design that would weaken security.

But few leapt at the chance to stand with Cook. And some corporate executives took critical stands. “I don’t think it is Silicon Valley’s decision to make about whether encryption is the right thing to do,” Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T told the Wall Street Journal. “I understand Tim Cook’s decision, but I don’t think it’s his decision to make.”

This story was updated at 7:06 p.m. ET to include information about Google’s response.

Top Photo: Silicon Valley.

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