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Authorities In Apple-FBI Case ‘Risk Unlocking Pandora’s Box’, Warns UN Human Rights Chief


The top United Nations human rights official urged United States authorities to proceed with great caution in their legal efforts to break the encryption on an iPhone linked to the investigation into the mass killings in San Bernardino, California, saying the case could have broader implications for digital security and human rights.


UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement that the ongoing legal process involving the Apple computer company and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “is not just about one case and one IT company in one country. It will have tremendous ramifications for the future of individuals’ security in a digital world which is increasingly inextricably meshed with the actual world we live in.”

According to reports, on December 2, 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured in an attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, which consisted of a mass shooting and an attempted bombing. Subsequently, the FBI has requested Apple to unlock the iPhone of one of the shooters to access encrypted data.

Mr. Zeid notes that the FBI deserves “everyone’s full support” in the probe, but that this case is “about where a key red line necessary to safeguard all of us from criminals and repression should be set,” said the UN human rights chief.

A successful case against Apple will set a precedent that may make it impossible for any other major international IT company to safeguard their clients’ privacy anywhere in the world, he warned. This could potentially be a “gift” to authoritarian regimes and criminal hackers.

“In order to address a security-related issue related to encryption in one case, the authorities risk unlocking a Pandora’s Box that could have extremely damaging implications for the human rights of many millions of people,” Mr. Zeid said.


Need for encryption tools

Referring to State attempts to expose people to mass surveillance, Mr. Zeid noted that encryption tools are used world-wide by human rights defenders, civil society, journalists, whistle-blowers and political dissidents facing persecution and harassment.

“Without encryption tools, lives may be endangered,” he said. “In the worst cases, a Government’s ability to break into its citizens’ phones may lead to the persecution of individuals who are simply exercising their fundamental human rights.”

Mr. Zeid also warned that weakening encryption protection opens the door for criminals intent on committing economic crimes.

“In an age when we store so much of our personal and professional lives on our smart phones and other devices, how is it going to be possible to protect that information without fail-safe encryption systems,” Mr. Zeid asked.
Potential greater dangers

He said the debate around encryption is too focused on security, and overlooks that weakening encryption protections may bring even bigger dangers to national and international security.

He urged US authorities to use the Apple-FBI case as a starting point for a “much-needed profound examination of the highly complex and constantly evolving issues relating to privacy and security in the digital age.”

Mr. Zeid also called on the Human Rights Council, now underway in Geneva, to continue to examine the impact that digital and new technologies have on human rights across the globe.

UN News

News provided by UN News Centre

3 thoughts on “Authorities In Apple-FBI Case ‘Risk Unlocking Pandora’s Box’, Warns UN Human Rights Chief

  • March 6, 2016 at 12:23 am

    Would Apple give the information contained in the calls to the FBI if they did not have to provide the encryption codes? Why not form an in-house department at Apple that would, in cases like these, assist the FBI in obtaining necessary data to prevent terrorist attacks? The UN representative says that this is a human rights issue. Is not human life itself and other damages to society more important than cooperating with the FBI in these matters?

    • March 6, 2016 at 10:57 pm

      Steven – two things. First, Apple does not have the encryption keys. So even Apple cannot decrypt the encrypted data. The way strong encryption works is that one uses publicly and peer review encryption software that is public. The user of the encryption uses encryption keys. Only the users know or can generate the keys. Secondly, there is the slippery slope argument. If Apple was to weaken its encryption software to help the FBI (who does good work), the argument is that other countries will want the same privilege. For example, I believe France has passed laws to fine and possibly jail Apple. Germany is threatening to sue Apple 1M euro per day. If Apple gave in, it would set the precedence where other countries would want to break the encryption for their citizens. Imagine other more repressive governments (insert your oppressive and persuasive regime here) now asking Apple.

  • March 6, 2016 at 4:15 am

    That’s a ridiculous idea Steven. Educate yourself on this case. Who is going to pay for this department at Apple and why should they be forced to compromise the security of their own devices? They already co-operate with law enforcement as far as they are able. How many requests do you think they’d be fielding if they offered a cracking service for their devices and for what purposes? Where does it stop? Hint: It won’t stop with phones and with Apple if the FBI gets this through. This isn’t just some US issue. Apple already provided the previous iCloud backup of the phone to the authorities. The FBI advised the San Bernardino County Health department to change the iCloud password of the dead attacker which stopped the phone backing up the very latest data it had. Why would they do that when they new the problem it would cause? The fact that the attackers destroyed their personal phones and computer hard drive, but left the iPhone (which is a work phone), shows that there is likely nothing of value on it. This is an attempt by the FBI to make an end run around congress. Have the FBI enlisted other agencies to attempt to extract the data off the phone? No. It’s not Apple’s role to provide law-enforcement with a backdoor into their products, thereby weakening encryption for all. The ramifications from this case will echo around the world. I for one hope that Apple prevail.


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