Privacy International, together with Human Rights Watch, submits a briefing to US court, arguing that Apple is right to refuse the FBI's demands to weaken iPhone security

amicus brief

Privacy International and Human Rights Watch have submitted a briefing to a US court, arguing that compelling Apple to build new software for the FBI will be a dangerous game changer in the security of the technology we rely on every day. If the FBI wins its case against Apple, it will open the floodgates for governments across the world to make similar demands. Compelling technology companies to weaken the security of their products and services will make the personal information we store on our phones, computers and increasingly the Internet of Things vulnerable to theft and exploitation.

In the brief submitted to the Central District of California by Privacy International and Human Rights Watch, we argue that: 

"The mere existence of the power the Government seeks may erode the security infrastructure of the internet. If Apple can be compelled to undermine its security features, what confidence can users of Apple and other technology products and services actually place in those features?"

The FBI's demand relates to an iPhone that belonged to one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino attack. While the FBI claims that this is a highly targeted request, about access to a single iPhone in relation to a single atrocity, officials across the US have already been lining up for similar access. In fact, the FBI has twelve similar requests currently pending in courts across the country and local prosecutors have spoken of hundreds of iPhones they would like to access through this kind of power. Just last week Apple headed off a claim in New York about access to another iPhone. 

Trust in the technology we rely on everyday is at stake. If the FBI wins this case, it will set a far-reaching legal precedent. A number of governments around the world, including Russia, China, Turkey, Pakistan and the UK, currently seek the power the FBI wants. They will be emboldened to also demand that tech companies hack their products or services.

For instance, the UK's Investigatory Powers Bill, published earlier this week, would give intelligence agencies and the Police the power to compel companies to hack or build backdoors to their own encrpytion. Compounding the concerns raised by these troubling powers, gagging clauses in the Bill would mean that the kind of public debate that is currently raging over Apple vs FBI would not happen here.   

Security features, such as encryption are integral to the protection of civil and human rights. A win for the FBI will set a precedent other countries could rely on when trying to compel technology companies to weaken security for illegitimate purposes - including stifling freedom of speech, crushing dissent, and facilitating arbitrary arrest and torture. 

Caroline Wilson Palow, General Counsel at Privacy International said:

"The implications of the dispute between Apple and the FBI are far-reaching and very troubling. If the FBI is successful in compelling Apple to undermine the security of the iPhone, many countries will line up to follow suit. An FBI victory will be a major defeat for trust in the security of our digital devices and services, and may render individuals around the world vulnerable to attacks by criminals, foreign agents, and in repressive regimes, even their own Governments."

Cynthia Wong, Senior Internet Researcher at Human Rights Watch said:

“The outcome of this case will reverberate around the globe.  If the FBI’s argument prevails, it will embolden repressive regimes to conscript any software or device maker to re-write or weaken code designed to protect individuals worldwide.  Ultimately, such a result will undermine the security of digital tools that all of us increasingly rely on every day.”