Apple’s legal battle with the FBI over unlocking the San Bernardino killer’s iPhone is part of a much wider global showdown between technology companies and United State government agencies, according to legal and tech experts.
Experts argue that this showdown involves international perceptions, the financial bottom line, and even fears that foreign governments might follow the U.S. lead and force companies to allow access to data.
A separate though similar case is before the courts involving Microsoft and an attempt by prosecutors to access the contents of emails held on a server in a foreign country, but without dealing with that nation’s courts or government.
For Apple and Microsoft, public relations and international consumers' perceptions of them are hugely important, said Peter Firstbrook, an analyst with Gartner, a information technology research and advisory company.
“Absolutely,” he told AMI News Wire in an email message. “There is a huge upside to Apple having a public dispute on this with the FBI, for the global audience.”
Firstbrook said the supremacy that the U.S. technology giants now enjoys faces significant erosion if there is a perception that all information, held anywhere, can be accessed by government agencies. “In Europe, Middle East, and Asia, there is a view that all the major US tech brands are in the pocket of the NSA, FBI, CIA etc,” he said.
“If you look at the U.S. market, it is maybe split 50-50 with consumers siding between Apple and the FBI, but if you ask the same question globally, almost nobody will support the FBI,” the tech analyst argued. “That is why Facebook, Google and Microsoft are lining up behind Apple. They don’t want to be seen as in the pocket of the U.S. government.”
Just over 50 percent of American people support the FBI, while 38 percent back Apple in this showdown, according to a Pew Research poll published Sunday.
Others are lining up against the tech giant, including presidential candidate Donald Trump and even, to a point, Bill Gates. “Boycott Apple until such time as they give that information," Trump told supporters ahead of the South Carolina GOP primary.
Gates was quoted Tuesday in the Financial Times as saying the FBI request is no different from asking a telephone company to get information or a bank accessing records following a lawful request. The former Microsoft executive later backed off from that position, stating Congress and the courts should find a balance between security and privacy.
FBI director Jim Comey, in a statement released Sunday, said: “The San Bernardino litigation isn't about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice. Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined. We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. That's what this is. The American people should expect nothing less from the FBI."
Nick Cordozo, staff attorney with
the privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, described as “absurd” Comey’s argument that no precedent would be set if specific software was developed to unlock phones.
“It’s patently false. It does not even come close to passing the smell test.”
Apple is “more worried about foreign governments,” Cordozo said. “Once it hands over the key to the U.S. government, it will have to give in to similar demands from other governments, Russia, China and Turkey, and other countries with terrible human rights records.”
Apple’s stand, appealing a court order that the company give a federal agency access to data, is similar to one involving Microsoft - and an attempt by U.S. prosecutors in a drug trafficking case to get their hands on emails held in a server in Dublin, Ireland.
The government argues that because Microsoft is a U.S.-based company and its employees would not have to physically go to Dublin to get the data, a simple subpoena is enough to compel the company to hand over the information.
Tech companies, including Apple and Facebook, have lined up behind Microsoft, arguing that bypassing international treaties and simply surrendering the information would jeopardize the future of international cloud computing.
The Irish government filed an amicus brief in support of Microsoft, stating that prosecutors can, indeed must, use the existing, mutual legal-assistance treaty before the data is handed over.
While there are differences between the Apple and Microsoft cases, Cordozo said both are about “making it clear that the U.S. government believes that it should have the power to compel technology companies to do its bidding no matter where the data is.”