Earlier this week, we looked at the standoff developing between Apple and the FBI over whether Apple can be ordered to provide means of U.S. government surveillance of users of their globally marketed products. It’s a fast-developing story about a serious issue that will affect the internet in general.

That is why Microsoft now backs its competitor, Apple, after some initial waffling:

Microsoft President and Chief Legal Counsel Brad Smith testified before Congress today, saying the company would file paperwork next week in support of Apple in its current case, where the FBI and Department of Justice are trying to compel Apple to create software that will make an iPhone easier to unlock.

As does the rest of Big Tech: “Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon now plan to support Apple in court in its fight with FBI” (Mashable)

Is this just corporate greed? No. For now, I can only offer some pointers for what’s likely to be a major, and possibly underreported or misrepresented story in years to come:

– The skinny: In the wake of the San Bernardino shootings in December,

On Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym ruled that Apple should supply highly specialized software the FBI can load onto the phone to cripple a security encryption feature that erases data after too many unsuccessful unlocking attempts.

At first, given that the data may help identify mass murderers known to one of the shooters, one is naturally tempted to side with the FBI, who insist that there is nothing to see here about future government intrusions into everyone’s privacy: The agency merely wishes to obtain data about the terrorist links of one of the San Bernardino shooters:

Comey denied that the issue is about setting a precedent for giving the agency widespread access to user data. Instead, he said, it’s about “a thorough and professional investigation under law” into the December shooting deaths of 14 people.

The problem is that few analysts agree with the agency that it would end there. Indeed, it couldn’t possibly end there.

– Many issues billow in the smoke, such as the fact that the county owned the phone or that Apple has sometimes complied in the past, to say nothing of the blame circus around which government employee was responsible for dealing with the phone such that data became irrecoverable. Politicians are weighing in, for current advantage. A decade from now, none of that will matter. But this will:

– A former prosecutor, sympathetic to the government’s case in principle, has pointed out that Apple’s arguments are strong and that the issue has wide implications. The US government has rarely used the All Writs Act (1789) on which it is relying in this case. But “in those cases the technology and tools already existed, said Jennifer Granick, an attorney and director of civil liberties and the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.”

She adds that the FBI already knows that the deceased committed the offence, and “What happens so often is we do something that’s justified for terrorism, but it’s going to get used in regular, run-of-the-mill cases.” That might be better news for some than for others. On a global basis, what is a “case”? Child porn rings? People providing support networks for abused women in countries where women have few civil rights? Christians operating an underground church? Apple’s CEO Tim Cook insists, “This case is not about one phone. This case is about the future,” and he is surely correct.

– Meanwhile, Microsoft’s current president, Brad Smith, says that the software giant is shortly filing an amicus brief in defense of competitor Apple. Microsoft, it seems, has also been pestered by U.S. authorities to release customer’s data from Ireland, bypassing Irish authorities Microsoft is pressing for workable global data laws. As the Seattle Times tells it, Smith

pulled out a 1912 adding machine while giving his testimony, using the prop to demonstrate the age of the law that is being quoted in the Apple case.

The All Writs Act dates back to 1789, but possibly an abacus and quill pen were not handy. Meanwhile, Monday (March 28), a federal judge ruled in an unrelated case that the FBI can’t use the All Writs Act to force Apple to unlock a customer’s phone. 

– Apple is said to be working on a phone even Apple itself could not hack in principle:

If Apple succeeds in upgrading its security — and experts say it almost surely will — the company will create a significant technical challenge for law enforcement agencies, even if the Obama administration wins its fight over access to data stored on an iPhone used by one of the killers in last year’s San Bernardino, Calif., rampage. If the Federal Bureau of Investigation wanted to get into a phone in the future, it would need a new way to do so. That would most likely prompt a new cycle of court fights and, yet again, more technical fixes by Apple.

The way things are going, that may be the only one to own. But then, for the average citizen, will surveillance-free phones become what hard drugs used to be? Those are the types of issues the case raises. Stay tuned.

Update: None of the above is intended to imply that Apple is the People’s Hero. Apple has profited handsomely from authoritarian rule in China. Consider:

The years-long strategy in China is paying off at a crucial time. While sales of Apple products have flatlined or declined in the U.S., Europe and Japan, business in the company’s greater China region continues to soar — to a record $59 billion last year. The Asian giant surpassed the U.S. last year as the No. 1 buyer of iPhones and could one day be the largest market for Apple Pay, the mobile payment platform that was rolled out for Chinese consumers last week.

But there’s no guarantee the good times will continue rolling for Apple. Beijing is increasingly tightening the screws on foreign technology companies, having introduced strict laws aimed at policing the Internet and digital hardware.

The environment will get even tougher, Apple says, if the FBI prevails in seeking a so-called backdoor to Farook’s phone. That could set a precedent for China’s authoritarian leaders to demand the same in a country where Apple has never publicly defied orders. More.

Then there is the business in the Middle East:

Apple operates in 17 nations in which homosexual activity is illegal. In four of those, it is punishable by death. Women have almost no rights in numerous countries in which Apple does business. A female could not even drive a shipment of iPhones to Apple’s sales location in Saudi Arabia, or work there without a male’s permission.

Essentially, North Americans do not need to buy Apple, and unless governments can make surveillance universal, Apple (and the whole industry) is compelled to take a position that, in the long run, is probably safer for citizens.

See also: The internet: Privacy fights back It’s worse than we thought. But is Privategrity the answer? (Note: For the internet user, this story raises many of the same issues around the role of government in a global society.)


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.


Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...