The United Nations has added its voice to the chorus of organizations calling for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to back down from its efforts to force Apple to unlock the iPhone of a terror suspect. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights, said that the FBI’s actions could open up a “Pandora’s box” of unintended consequences, including endangering the lives and well-being of millions of people.
“I recognize this case is far from reaching a conclusion in the U.S. courts, and urge all concerned to look not just at the merits of the case itself but also at its potential wider impact,” al-Hussein said in a statement released by the U.N. today.
Here's the backstory: On December 2, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, shot at people at a holiday gathering for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. The couple killed 14 people and seriously wounded 20 others. Later that day, Farook and his wife were killed in a shootout with police. Since the attack, authorities have been going through their belongings, including their smartphones, trying to determine their motives and whether they were part of a larger terrorist plot.
The FBI has called on Apple to override the auto-erase function on Farook's iPhone and a U.S. has ordered the tech giant to comply. So far, Apple has openly defied the order.
A Dangerous Precedent
The statement from the U.N. comes as a number of tech companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have filed amicus briefs supporting Apple’s position. The companies said they are “united in their view that the government’s order to Apple exceeds the bounds of existing law and, when applied more broadly, will harm Americans’ security in the long run.”
And tech companies aren’t the only ones taking Apple’s side in the debate. Former Secretary of U.S. Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said yesterday that the FBI’s demand that Apple build and maintain computer code capable of hacking into any iOS device was equivalent to producing a biological weapon.
Rather than improving Americans' security, the U.N. human rights commissioner argued that the FBI’s demand would actually place them in greater danger from both rogue nations and criminal actors.
“A successful case against Apple in the U.S. will 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,” he said. “It is potentially a gift to authoritarian regimes, as well as to criminal hackers. There have already been a number of concerted efforts by authorities in other states to force IT and communications companies such as Google and Blackberry to expose their customers to mass surveillance.”
A Fundamental Human Right
Al-Hussein described encryption, including the type used to secure the iPhone, as a fundamental human right and a prerequisite for a free and open society. “It is neither fanciful nor an exaggeration to say that, 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.”
The FBI has insisted that it is only asking for access to the data on one iPhone -- something that wouldn’t cause any long-term consequences. However, al-Hussein said that asking Apple to break the iPhone’s encryption would empower not just the FBI, but other security organizations and hacking groups to gain unauthorized access to private information.
“There is, unfortunately, no shortage of security forces around the world who will take advantage of the ability to break into people’s phones if they can,” the high commissioner said. “And there is no shortage of criminals intent on committing economic crimes by accessing other people’s data.”