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Google backs Apple on encryption debate as things heat up

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has come out in support of Apple CEO Tim Cook's refusal to comply with a court order demanding Apple assist the FBI with breaking the encryption on the iPhone.

Published onFebruary 18, 2016

Sundar Pichai

Finally, something that Google and Apple can agree on: your right to privacy via encryption should not be infringed upon by your government. Yesterday, Apple CEO Tim Cook published an open letter regarding a recent court order that demands Apple assist the FBI with breaking the encryption on one of the San Bernadino shooter’s cell phones. Apple has formally rejected the request for an FBI backdoor to the iPhone and now Google CEO Sundar Pichai has stepped into Cook’s corner.

The dark side of encryption is also the light side

Pichai was silent for much of the day yesterday, until releasing a series of tweets in support of Cook’s resistance to provide the government with a master key to iOS encryption. As Cook claimed yesterday, “the government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements”, citing the court order as having “implications far beyond the legal case at hand”. Cook is a long-time advocate of iPhone user’s privacy.

1/5 Important post by @tim_cook. Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy
— sundarpichai (@sundarpichai) February 17, 2016

2/5 We know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism
— sundarpichai (@sundarpichai) February 17, 2016

Pichai then stepped up in a volley of supportive tweets, saying that “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.” Pichai stated that he was looking forward to a thoughtful and open discussion on the issue.

The only problem is that these discussions have already taken place. The FBI has repeatedly met with various social media and technology bosses and tried to strong arm them into compliance, frequently falling back on the media when these discussions go nowhere. But the tech industry is standing fast and has resisted all efforts thus far by the FBI, CIA and NSA to force them into providing law enforcement with a veritable master key to bypass their sophisticated encryption systems.

3/5 We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders
— sundarpichai (@sundarpichai) February 17, 2016

4/5 But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent
— sundarpichai (@sundarpichai) February 17, 2016

5/5 Looking forward to a thoughtful and open discussion on this important issue
— sundarpichai (@sundarpichai) February 17, 2016

In early January, top executives from Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook met with a White House delegation to discuss the topic of encryption and terrorists on social media. Although the general tone was supposedly informal, following the meeting several statements were made in defence of companies’ rights to maintain their encryption standards without providing the government with access to customer data. Tim Cook was among the attendees.

However, as many internet commentators have noted, the government frequently does some sabre-rattling whenever an attack provides an emotional backdrop against which to paint encryption as the bad guy. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that even if governments had access to encryption keys, attackers would simply find alternative means of communications, just as they have always done. And nobody is pretending the government wouldn’t abuse the power or that other hackers might not also exploit any back doors to encryption.

Nexus 6P January security update resized

The popular argument goes that the government is simply using these highly charged personal and political situations to try to sway public opinion. Several months before the Paris attacks, the general consul in the Office of the Director for National Intelligence said as much, stating that although “the legislative environment is very hostile today, it could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

At the very least it looks like the two largest tech companies in the world are standing shoulder to shoulder in this fight for your right to privacy. After all, these companies rely on your trust and loyalty to survive. With the presidential election campaign heating up, this topic is going to become more and more divisive, as law enforcement and the government position themselves firmly on one side, while the public digs in on the other.

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The last time I wrote about this I said the tech industry was caught in the middle of these two sides, but with Cook and Pichai backing each other up, we’re starting to get a much clearer idea of which side the tech world will fall on. However, as Pichai noted, any discussions on the topic need to be public, not held in secret behind closed doors. When it’s our first amendment rights that are at stake, we deserve to be in the room.

Where do you see this debate going? How much do you value your privacy?