Iphone access: tech companies bat for privacy

Google CEO Sundar Pichai (inset) said the demand for access could set a troubling precedent. —FILE PHOTOS: NYT, THE HINDU

Google CEO Sundar Pichai (inset) said the demand for access could set a troubling precedent. —FILE PHOTOS: NYT, THE HINDU  

After a federal court ordered Apple to help unlock an iPhone used by an attacker in a December mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, the company’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, penned a passionate letter warning of far-reaching implications beyond the case.

The response from other technology companies? A mix of carefully calibrated support and crickets. Late on Wednesday, Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google, said on Twitter that law enforcement demands to hack customer devices and data “could be a troubling precedent.” Not long afterward, Reform Government Surveillance, a coalition formed by Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, released a broad statement that did not mention the Apple case or Mr. Cook’s letter but said technology companies should not be required to put “back doors” — the equivalent of a tech entryway — into their products.

The range of reactions highlights the complicated set of factors influencing tech companies’ responses to government demands for customer data in the era after revelations by Edward J. Snowden, the former intelligence contractor, of widespread government surveillance. Some companies may be keeping their heads low to avoid becoming targets during the raucous presidential campaign, while others may fear that being too vocal will jeopardise government sales and relationships with law enforcement, privacy experts said.

“The issue is of monumental importance, not only to the government and Apple but to the other technology giants as well,” said Tom Rubin, a former attorney for Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Justice, who is now a law lecturer at Harvard University.

Some Silicon Valley luminaries were more direct in their support of Mr. Cook, including Jan Koum, the chief executive of WhatsApp, the mobile messaging app owned by Facebook. In a message posted to Facebook, Mr. Koum said he admired Mr. Cook’s position on privacy.

“We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set,” Mr. Koum wrote. “Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake.” — New York Times News Service

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