The top human rights authority at the United Nations warned Friday that if the FBI succeeds in forcing Apple to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers, it could have “tremendous ramifications” around the world and “potentially [be] a gift to authoritarian regimes, as well as to criminal hackers.”
The statement came a day after a deluge of technology companies and other groups publicly backed Apple in the fight, and it echoed what many of these firms and groups said in arguing that the FBI’s demands could have a devastating impact on digital privacy going forward.
“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, including their physical and financial security,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement Friday.
If the FBI prevails, Hussein argued, it would set a precedent that could make it impossible to fully protect privacy worldwide.
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“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,” Hussein said.
Apple is fighting a judge’s order directing the company to help the FBI unlock an iPhone found after the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino, Calif. While the Justice Department and other law enforcement groups argue that the demands here are specific and focused on one investigation, Apple and other tech firms are arguing that an FBI victory here could be utilized in countless other cases.
The locked iPhone 5C belonged to Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife, Tafsheen Malik, fatally shot 14 people and wounded 22 others during the attack. Both attackers, who pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, were killed hours after the shooting, and investigators say they are still looking into whether the pair had any ties to groups or people operating overseas.
Federal authorities obtained a magistrate judge’s order directing Apple to write software that would disable a feature that deletes the data on the iPhone — which is owned by San Bernardino County and was given to Farook in his job as a health inspector — after 10 incorrect password attempts.
Apple has fought the FBI’s order — in court, on Capitol Hill and through public statements — and this week, the company received the backing of dozens of other companies, groups and individuals.
Bruce Sewell, general counsel at Apple, before testifying on Capitol Hill this week. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
A ream of major tech companies — including Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, Snapchat and Microsoft — signed on to court briefs that warned of “a dangerous precedent” for digital security if Apple was forced to act “against their will.” These calls were joined by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, several trade and policy groups and dozens of technologists, security researchers and cryptographers.
The Justice Department received the backing of relatives of some of the people killed in the San Bernardino attack as well as briefs of support from law enforcement groups representing officers in California and across the country.
Hussein said that the United Nations fully supported the FBI’s investigation into the “abominable crime,” but argued against viewing this as an isolated case.
He pointed back to a report his office released last year saying that strong encryption and digital privacy are important to human rights, stating: “It is neither fanciful nor an exaggeration to say that, without encryption tools, lives may be endangered.”
In trying to glean information on the locked iPhone, authorities could “end up enabling a multitude of other crimes all across the world, including in the United States,” he said.