The UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has said that the US Department of Justice risks “unlocking a Pandora’s Box” in its efforts to force Apple to decrypt the iPhone of a suspect in last December’s shootings in San Bernardino, California.
The case, which Prince Zeid acknowledged is far from having been decided, could have “extremely damaging” implications for human rights, he said, urging the US authorities to examine not only immediate security issues but also the broader issues at stake.
“This case is not about a company – and its supporters — seeking to protect criminals and terrorists, it is about where a key red line necessary to safeguard all of us from criminals and repression should be set,” he said on Friday.
While the FBI “deserves everyone’s full support” in the investigation, he argued, “there are many ways to investigate whether or not these killers had accomplices besides forcing Apple to create software to undermine the security features of their own phones”.
Such software could be “a gift to authoritarian regimes” and to criminal hackers, the prince said, comparing the privacy issues involved to instances in which governments have asked Google and BlackBerry to provide the ability to bypass communications encryption.
“Encryption tools are widely used around the world, including by human rights defenders, civil society, journalists, whistle-blowers and political dissidents facing persecution and harassment,” Zeid said. “Encryption and anonymity are needed as enablers of both freedom of expression and opinion, and the right to privacy.”
Business issues critical to the digital economy are also at stake, he argued, as success by the DOJ could “set a precedent that may make it impossible for Apple or any other major international IT company to safeguard their clients’ privacy anywhere in the world”.
The investigation of one crime could then “end up enabling a multitude of other crimes”, he said.
Earlier UN reports on encryption have argued it deserves strong protection on privacy and human rights grounds.
Apple has refused to comply with a court order that it weaken protections on unlocking the handset belonging to suspect Syed Rizwan Farook, who carried out the shooting with his wife last December, arguing it would set “a dangerous precedent”.
IT companies including Twitter, AirBnB, eBay, LinkedIn, Reddit, Amazon, Microsoft, Snapchat and Yahoo have publicly declared their support for Apple, while a lawyer representing a group of those who survived the shooting said he would file a brief in support of the FBI’s case.
An FBI request to force Apple to unlock an iPhone in a New York drugs case was recently rejected, with the judge finding that justice officials were overreaching the law – again lending support for Apple’s point of view.
The FBI has argued that the implications of Apple’s cooperation would be narrowly limited.
Recent reports have suggested that the DOJ wants to oblige Apple to help in about a dozen undisclosed cases involving locked iPhones.
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