Why Brits Should Care About Apple Standing Up to the FBI on Privacy

By James O Malley on at

Apple CEO Tim Cook has won plaudits from privacy and security advocates following the publication of his open letter to Apple customers, explaining why the company won’t be complying with a request from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

What the FBI wants is for Apple to build a new version of iOS that has a “backdoor” built in – one which would enable the agency to access the private and encrypted data of iPhone users. The FBI’s thinking, presumably, is that access to iPhone data might make it easier for them to catch terrorists and the like.

So is this just an American problem? Or should Brits be worried too? In short: Yes.

Even though the FBI is an American agency, the implications if Apple does cave in (or if it is forced to) will affect us all.

Undermining Encryption

Essentially, the big problem is that if Apple was to undermine its security and encryption, there would be no way to ensure that only the good guys get access. Compromising security to allow the FBI in would – by definition – also make iOS easier for less well intentioned actors to hack into.

The problem for Brits too is that it would be impossible for Apple to, say, only break the encryption on American iPhones, because they are all powered by the same iOS software. So if the FBI can access American phones, they can access your phone too.

International Precedent

OK, so perhaps you’re not convinced by that argument. After all, let’s give the Americans the benefit of the doubt: if the FBI truly believe that gaining backdoor access to someone’s iPhone data can stop a terrorist attack then shouldn’t we let them?

But what if it wasn’t the FBI demanding that Apple give them access, and it was instead the Russian FSB? Or China’s Ministry of State Security? Or the Saudi religious police?

Weakening encryption for the FBI would set a potentially dangerous international precedent, and you can guarantee that Apple caves in to the FBI, a tonne of less pleasant regimes will be next in the queue to demand access. And these are countries that aren’t just interested in stopping terrorism – but are also interested in spying on political opponents and so on. Even if you’re happy with Barack Obama swiping through your photos – would you really be happy with Vladimir Putin doing the same?

The Investigatory Powers Bill Debate

What’s also interesting about Tim Cook’s intervention is that it comes at a time when the UK, like many other countries, are locked into fierce debate about privacy and granting government access to our digital data. In Britain, this is the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill, or “Snooper’s Charter” as its detractors call it. While the proposed bill doesn’t out and out demand backdoor access, there have been concerns that if it becomes law, in order to comply firms will be forced to weaken their encryption so that the security services can gain access.

So in terms of the British debate too, Tim Cook’s comments are significant, and whether or not he or Apple eventually decides to stand firm or capitulate will have a huge impact here too.