Skip to main content

Carl Bildt is a former prime minister of Sweden and chair of the Global Commission on Internet Governance. Fen Osler Hampson is co-director of the GCIG. Paul Twomey is former head of ICANN (the technical co-ordinator of the Internet) and a GCIG member.

Apple Inc. has taken on the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. government. Its chief executive officer, Tim Cook, has launched a full-frontal assault by refusing to co-operate with the FBI to uncover cellphone data belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists, notwithstanding 70 earlier cases in which Apple appears to have co-operated with law enforcement.

The issue is whether Apple should compromise the protections it has to assure users who have lost their cellphones that they would not have their data stolen through the use of "brute force" software to try every feasible combination of passwords to unlock their phones.

But Mr. Cook's refusal signals a much bigger principle: The U.S. government should not require American companies to weaken their own products either by co-operating with law-enforcement authorities to release data or designing back doors that give the U.S. government secret encryption keys. The effect would be to force American companies to admit to their own customers they can undo their security systems on the request of government authorities.

However, the issue is not just about individual freedom and liberty, but also about the very future of the U.S. technology industry. The CEO of the largest U.S. company has in effect said, "Do not drive our customers to our non-American competitors. Apple's business model is to sell devices, not its customers' data."

Since the terrorist attacks of last year, a tripartite battle has waged between intelligence agencies, Silicon Valley and law-enforcement officials. At this juncture, U.S. law enforcement finds itself facing an unusual alliance.

In a strange twist, U.S. intelligence officials now agree with Silicon Valley that encryption is key to American prosperity and security. Admiral Michael Rogers, who heads the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), has openly said that encryption is "foundational to the future" and the debate to compromise encryption is a "waste of time" because it is vital to protect U.S. networks from attack and secure online commerce.

His position, however, is contrary to U.S. Senate intelligence committee chairman Richard Burr, who, like the French government, is demanding law enforcement access to encrypted data in cellphones and computers.

Back doors that give encryption keys to others can be exploited by adversaries and cybercriminals. The NSA knows this and its broader objective is to protect critical U.S. infrastructure and national security. On the other hand, the FBI's goal to is to prosecute criminals and gather evidence in specific cases.

Since Edward Snowden's revelations, which showed that some U.S. corporations were co-operating with the government, trust between Washington and Silicon Valley is at an all-time low. Pre-Snowden, a patriotic naiveté drove Silicon Valley into the arms of the U.S. government in its efforts to combat terrorism. Having been badly burned by Mr. Snowden, Silicon Valley companies now face widespread shock and disgust by their engineering work force and are doing everything to distance themselves from any association with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement.

At another level, this is a battle for Silicon Valley's survival against competition from Asia and Europe. U.S. high-tech companies now sell mostly to customers outside the United States and to a middle-class market in Asia and Europe that dwarfs North America's. Silicon Valley's competitors know that these customers are up for grabs if the U.S. government makes a mistake and weakens the quality and security of high-technology products by demanding intrusive access. This is not just a law-enforcement matter. It is also a global trade issue that will potentially affect the United States' leading competitive edge.

This story emerged on the same day that an Indian company announced that it is releasing a smartphone for about $5, less than 1 per cent of the price of an iPhone. If the FBI wins, the future of mobile communications lies in the hands of Indian and Chinese cellphone makers, who will claim that their products are not only vastly cheaper, but also more secure from the prying eyes of the U.S. government.

Interact with The Globe