Called Out

The Global Consequences of Apple's Fight With the FBI

People gather at a small rally in support of Apple's refusal to help the FBI, in Santa Monica, California, February 2016. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

By now, the details of Apple’s fight with the FBI are well known: the FBI wants access to an iPhone belonging to the deceased terrorism suspect Syed Farook, who was involved in the San Bernardino, California, attack on December 2, 2015. Farook’s iPhone is encrypted, so the FBI wants Apple to issue a tailored software update that would allow it to bypass the encryption. Apple has responded by refusing to write special software that would eliminate its security protections.

For both sides, the stakes are high. Apple says that complying with the FBI’s orders would set a dangerous precedent, and the FBI hopes that the court will decide in its favor, which it claims would be “instructive for other courts.” There is no real middle ground. Apple might be willing to cooperate with the FBI to solve some terrorism cases (although it is not at all clear that Farook’s work-issued phone is hiding any substantial secrets). But if Apple did offer its help, the FBI and law enforcement authorities would surely be tempted to take advantage, expanding the areas on which they seek collaboration.

Apple and the FBI are also aware that their domestic fight may have serious international repercussions. The outcome of their dispute will create an important precedent for foreign law enforcement agencies that seek data from Apple and other technology firms such as Facebook and Google.

If the FBI wins its case, foreign law enforcement agencies will surely take note. Already, governments are increasingly forcing technology companies to give up their customers’ data, no matter where they are located. Brazil just jailed Facebook’s vice president for Latin America for a day to pressure Facebook to release data wanted for a criminal investigation. France’s Parliament has just voted for a legislative amendment that would impose prison sentences and fines on technology companies that refuse to cooperate in terrorism inquiries. If the FBI wins a concession from Apple, Apple may soon find itself pressured by law

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