After boldly and publicly rejecting on Wednesday a federal court order to hack an iPhone, 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 immediate and 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. He went on:
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, the anonymous search engine DuckDuckGo, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, the anonymous browser Tor Project, a private jet charter company, and password managers 1Password and Dashlane. (Update on Feb. 23: Dashlane community manager Malaika Nicholas, who initially tweeted her company’s support, said the company has not actually chosen sides yet.)
“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.
A coalition of companies called “Reform Government Surveillance,” including tech giants AOL, Dropbox, Everlane, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo, eventually weighed in, publishing a statement in support of Apple Wednesday evening: “Reform Government Surveillance companies believe it is extremely important to deter terrorists and criminals and to help law enforcement by processing legal orders for information in order to keep us all safe. But technology companies should not be required to build in backdoors to the technologies that keep their users’ information secure.”
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.”
IBM and Samsung were among the tech giants remaining silent.
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.
Some corporate executives criticized Cook’s stand. “I don’t think it is Silicon Valley’s decision to make about whether encryption is the right thing to do,” Randall Stephenson, the 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.”
Editor’s note at 9:52 a.m. ET on Thursday, Feb. 18: This story has been updated to include more responses from companies.