Google lends Apple support over FBI encryption demands

Making tech companies hack their customers’ devices “could be a troubling precedent,” says Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has lent support to Apple in the debate over encrypted iPhones—sort of.

In a series of Twitter posts, Pichai praised Apple CEO Tim Cook for writing an “important” letter that speaks out against the FBI’s decryption demands. “Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy,” Pichai wrote.

While Pichai noted that Google provides data access to law enforcement when legally required, that’s different from making tech companies enable hacking of customers’ devices and data. “Could be a troubling precedent,” Pichai added.

The FBI wants Apple to provide a special version of iOS that prevents a phone from erasing itself after too many failed login attempts. This would enable brute force attacks on password-protected iPhones, and help investigators to break into the phone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters in a December attack that killed 14 people in San Bernadino, California. Earlier this week, a U.S. District Court judge in California ordered Apple to build this software, as it doesn’t exist currently.

Cook’s response argues that building this software would endanger all users, because there’s no way to guarantee control over its use. The FBI’s proposal also sets a dangerous legal precedent, Cook said, by giving the government power to reach into any device.

“While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products,” Cook wrote. “And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

Why this matters: Although security experts and politicians have been arguing over encryption and backdoors for months, the court order—and Cook’s letter—have caused the debate to boil over. But so far, other tech companies have shied away from strong public stances against the FBI’s demand. Pichai’s statements are the closest any company has come to an endorsement of Apple, though even he’s taking some criticism for not offering an even stronger stance.

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