SAN FRANCISCO — Although many leading tech companies have long voiced concerns over assisting in government surveillance, Apple — for now — is facing the latest battle alone.
Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo have been conspicuously silent after a U.S. magistrate ordered Apple to produce software that would help investigators hack into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters.
Instead, a few trade groups that count those companies as members issued brief statements of concern about efforts to weaken encryption; two of the groups didn't even mention Apple or its specific arguments. And while Google CEO Sundar Pichai warned that that "Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users' privacy," and that the case "could be a troubling precedent," his responses came as a series of short tweets.
It was Apple CEO Tim Cook who posted a 1,117-word open letter on how the request might have implications "far beyond the legal case at hand."
Could set precedent
The government isn't asking Apple to help break the iPhone's encryption directly, but by disabling other security measures that prevent attempts to guess the phone's passcode. Cook argues that once such a tool is available, "the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices" — even as law enforcement insists that safeguards could be employed to limit its use to that particular phone.
Apple has until next Tuesday to challenge the order, setting the stage for a legal clash that experts say could change the relationship between tech companies and government authorities in the U.S. and around the world.
For months, Cook has engaged in a sharp, public debate with government officials over his company's decision to shield the data of iPhone users with strong encryption — essentially locking up people's photos, text messages and other data so securely that even Apple can't get at it. Law-enforcement officials from FBI Director James Comey on down have complained that terrorists and criminals may use that encryption as a shield.
"This is really a deep question about the power of government to redesign products that we use," said Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor who studies data security and privacy issues.
While other tech companies have spoken against broad government surveillance in the past, the Obama administration has recently sought to enlist the tech industry's help in fighting terrorism. Several companies have recently heeded the administration's request for voluntary efforts aimed at countering terrorist postings on social media.
Civil liberties groups warned the fallout from the San Bernardino dispute could extend beyond Apple.
"This is asking a company to build a digital defect, a design flaw, into their products," said Nuala O'Connor of the Center for Democracy and Technology.