Telecoms Tight-Lipped On Apple's Encryption Battle With FBI

While vendors, startups, and tech CEOs in Silicon Valley are sounding off on the ongoing Apple-versus-FBI debate over unlocking an encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters, telecommunications carriers have largely remained quiet.

Last week, Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple was asked by the FBI to create a new version of an iPhone operating system that would bypass specific security features that the current operating system has in place. The requested operating system would create a backdoor that could be used on any iPhone. The FBI says it will use the system to unlock an iPhone linked to the December 2015 San Bernardino shooting. But Apple CEO Tim Cook refused, saying that having a "master key" to all iPhones would set a dangerous precedent and weaken security for all Apple users.

While the majority of the tech companies voicing their views back Apple, many telecommunications companies are either noticeably silent, or are providing responses that err on the side of diplomacy.

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[Why IT Companies Back Apple On Encryption Battle With FBI]

"The conservative viewpoint is saying that morally, it doesn't seem to right to not help with something that cost lives. But at the same time, some believe that it could open the door to more breaches. I'm listening to it all, but I can't decide what is technically the truth versus what is politics," said one solution provider who spoke under the condition of anonymity.

"There is also a part of me that feels like it's kind of nice that there is a technology company that is not going to cave and give up our privacy rights," the provider added.

Tech vendors and carriers were famously outed as working with the government by Edward Snowden in 2013. Snowden, an IT professional who had done work for the CIA, copied classified information and fled the country, revealed that over the years, some carriers -- including Verizon and AT&T -- have granted the National Security Agency (NSA) access to both Internet communications and countless phone records.

[Related: Choose A Side: Tech Leaders Back Up Apple In Encryption Battle Against FBI (With One Giant Exception)]

Because of the cooperative nature of the past relationships that the government has had with carriers, it's no surprise that carriers are pleading the fifth, said the solution provider, who partners with many domestic and international carriers.

Verizon, CenturyLink, and Comcast declined to comment on the subject when reached by CRN.

AT&T, however, spoke up and is taking a neutral approach.

"Our personal view is that there has to be a balance between personal privacy and security," said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T's Mobile and Business Solutions unit during an interview at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

"Right now, the laws are a little bit muddled," de la Vega continued. "We think that Congress should take the leadership role in setting up clear laws to be followed by the land that balances the security and privacy aspects for the citizens of the country. I think that's the right way to settle it … versus doing it in the courts or in any other forum."

In a New York Times report in August 2015, AT&T was once again characterized as having a "highly collaborative" partnership with the NSA, but the report said the carrier was possibly even tighter with the government than its competitors in the telecommunications space. The report said Dallas-based AT&T gave the NSA access to billions of emails and authorized wiretapping of communications transmitted over its network for a decade.

While telecom provider Sprint has not publicly issued a statement, competitor T-Mobile's notoriously vocal CEO, John Legere, said he understood both sides of the debate, and that Cook is "in a really, really difficult spot."

"I mean, obviously what we have got is an unheralded situation where he’s being requested to help authorities deal with the security of the device. … We will see where it goes. I wouldn’t know how to advise him," Legere said in an interview with CNBC last week.

The debate between Apple and the FBI isn't simply about one iPhone, according to the solution provider who requested anonymity. The dilemma also opens the door to geopolitical issues. Many countries outside the U.S. are Apple customers, and phone-unlocking laws could get blurry if a citizen of a foreign country commits a crime.

"For countries that the U.S. is not friendly with that are buying Apple products, what is Apple's stance on unlocking those phones, is it country by country?" the provider said.

But from a security perspective, the solution provider isn't bothered by the fact that some of its carrier partners are known to have worked with the government in the past. In fact, this isn't the first time Apple was asked to hand over information and it has complied with such requests in the past, the partner said.

"For us, it's not really an issue," said the provider.