- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2016

Tech companies and law enforcement agencies are taking sides in the debate over encryption that kicked into high gear this week, with some top corporate names siding with Apple CEO Tim Cook in opposing a court order requiring the company to help the FBI hack the iPhone belonging to one of the Islamic State-inspired attackers in San Bernardino, California.

Taking to Twitter to explain his support for Apple, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that “forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy” and set a “troubling precedent.”

“We know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism,” Mr. Pichai wrote. “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 and data.”

But law enforcement officials slammed Apple for its refusal to cooperate in what is emerging as a test case of the tension between the government’s counterterror efforts and the privacy rights of private companies and their customers.

“Apple and Google have created the first warrant-proof consumer products in American history, and the result is that crimes are going unsolved and victims are being left beyond the protection of the law,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton in a joint statement issued Thursday.

Mr. Cook condemned a California judge’s ruling that would force his company to provide technical assistance to the FBI so that agents could attempt to break the four-digit password that protects the work-issued cellphone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook.

Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in a terrorist attack at his San Bernardino workplace and were later killed in a shootout with police more than two months ago, but FBI technicians have been unable to crack the safety codes on his phone.

Mr. Cook called the order a government overreach that could potentially jeopardize the encryption security of any iPhone.

“The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create,” Mr. Cook wrote in an open letter posted on Apple’s website within hours of the court order Tuesday. “They have asked us to build a back door to the iPhone.”

Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association President Nathan Catura fumed over Mr. Cook’s “arrogance” on the matter.

“It is outrageous for the CEO of one of the largest technology companies to suggest that federal agents are invading individuals’ privacy after the lawful presentation of a federal court order,” Mr. Catura said. “His arrogance has given him a false sense of superiority when it is in fact his responsibility as an American citizen to recognize and adhere to our system of laws, which were put in place to ensure both individual and national security.”

The divide between the interests of law enforcement and technology companies on the case has led lawmakers to weigh options that might force Apple’s hand. Civil rights and privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have said they would support the company in any legal battle.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, is working on a bill to penalize a company’s refusal to decipher encrypted communications.

But the Reform Government Surveillance group — which represents companies like Microsoft, AOL, Twitter, Yahoo and Facebook — issued a statement Wednesday noting that while it is important to deter terrorist and criminals, technology companies “should not be required to build in back doors to the technologies that keep their users’ information secure.”

“RGS companies remain committed to providing law enforcement with the help it needs while protecting the security of their customers and their customers’ information,” the statement read.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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