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

Encryption Debate Takes Center Stage

This week, the big talk in the tech world has been about encryption, prompted by Apple CEO Tim Cook's refusal to cooperate with the FBI to unlock an encrypted iPhone linked to the San Bernardino mass shooting last year. Cook expressed his stance in an open letter to customers early this week. The FBI is asking for Apple to build a new operating system that would bypass some security features, a push that was backed up by a judge's order Tuesday.

Many tech companies in the past few days have come to stand behind Apple, saying that the move to force the Cupertino, Calif., tech giant to unlock the phone would create a dangerous precedent for "backdoors" in encryption technologies. Take a look at some of the tech CEOs and influential individuals who have decided to voice their support for the vendor (and at least one notable exception).

Solution Providers

Many solution providers CRN spoke to this week said they support Apple's stand against the FBI and federal government on encryption. An informal survey of readers on backed up that idea, with the 75 percent of respondents saying that Tim Cook is doing the right thing.

"Apple's taking the correct stance here," said Michael Oh, chief technology officer and founder of TSP, a Boston-based Apple partner. "If Apple gives the FBI the ability to do this, who will make the decision of where to draw the line? This goes far beyond mobile phones and can extend to any device or hard drive."


On Twitter, Google CEO Sundar Pichai posted a series of five tweets, lending his support to competitor Apple. In the tweets, Pichai said "forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users' privacy." While Google does give law enforcement access to data for legal order reasons, Pichai said that is "wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices and data." He said that could "be a troubling precedent." Pichai concluded by saying that he was looking forward to a "thoughtful and open discussion on this important issue."


While Microsoft didn't post an outright statement of its support, President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith tweeted twice about the incident, saying it is "essential to have broad public discussion on these important issues," linking to a statement from the Reform Government Surveillance group, which expressed its support for the Apple position. CEO Satya Nadella (pictured) expressed his own support by retweeting the tweet and link.

"In a world where we need to keep both the public safe and privacy rights secure, backdoors take us backwards," Smith said in a subsequent tweet.

Trend Micro

In an email to CRN, Trend Micro expressed its support for Apple, but said it understands both sides of the issue. The company said it doesn't view what the government is asking for as a backdoor, as it bypasses the security passcode aspect of the phone rather than the encryption itself. That being said, Trend Micro said it stood with Tim Cook that by defeating that security feature, it would make it possible for others to crack the passcode, essentially creating a backdoor.

"This is a new situation in new circumstances," said Christopher Budd, Trend Micro global threat communications manager. "Both parties have good and valid arguments. It's the ongoing tension between individual privacy and collective security."


In a Naked Security blog post Friday, Sophos professed its support for Apple and "#nobackdoors." After explaining the nuances of backdoors, Sophos said that standing up for preventing them is more important than ever, given Apple's fight against the government. Sophos said it stands with Apple, as "weakening security with the aim of advancing security simply does not make sense."

"To backdoor one iPhone would effectively betray all of Apple's many millions of law-abiding customers, and pave the way for similar writs against other American companies and their customers," the blog post said.


WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum expressed his support for Tim Cook and Apple on Facebook, which now owns the popular encrypted messaging service.

"I have always admired Tim Cook for his stance on privacy and Apple's efforts to protect user data and couldn't agree more with everything said in their Customer Letter today. We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake," Koum wrote.


In an email to CRN, security vendor Eset said "Apple is being seen as a pioneer and leader in ensuring that a potentially dangerous precedent regarding the privacy of consumer's information is not set." Stephen Cobb, senior security researcher, said in a statement that he supports Apple's fight, as it would "set a damaging precedent" for technology companies.

"If Apple were to comply with this court order, the ramifications for US companies and consumers would be significant, from undermining international commerce to eroding trust in the technology on which so much of daily life and business in North America depends," Cobb said in the statement.


Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted Thursday afternoon that he supported Apple.

"We stand with [Tim Cook] and Apple (and thank him for his leadership)!" Dorsey said in the tweet, linking to Cook's letter explaining Apple's position on the issue.


FireEye Chief Privacy Officer Shane McGee told the Silicon Valley Business Journal that he supported Apple, saying, as others have, that it creates a dangerous precedent. He said it shows the desperation of the government and it would be practically challenging as Apple doesn't control the application layer.

"I've never seen something that you have to go out and create something for court purposes. It's wrong on so many levels," he told the publication. "With Apple, it's not just asking for a backdoor encryption key."


Symantec told the Silicon Valley Business Journal that it also supported the move by Tim Cook to stand up to the federal government. A Symantec statement in the publication said the company is committed to supporting law enforcement, but does not believe in compromising security technologies.

"While we understand the concerns expressed by some members of law enforcement, Symantec does not support any initiative that would intentionally weaken security technologies. Putting backdoors or introducing security vulnerabilities into encryption products introduces new avenues of attack, and reduces the security of the broader Internet," the company said.


Mark Surman, executive director of Mozilla, which creates the Firefox browser, posted a lengthy blog supporting Apple on Tuesday. In the blog, Surman said the amount of public discourse on the topic is "already a victory" and deserved the "same magnitude of support" as the former debate around net neutrality. He said the FBI "asking Apple to circumvent their own security protections is a massive overreach."

"It sets a dangerous precedent that threatens consumers' security going forward. Companies should be encouraged to aggressively strengthen the security of their products, rather than undermine that security. We must be careful not to let terrible events define something as ubiquitous as encryption, a critical component of the Internet and everyday life online," Surman said.

Edward Snowden

While not a technology executive, Edward Snowden is worth a mention as a bonus to this list. The whistleblower vehemently supported Apple on Twitter, saying the debate is the "most important tech case in a decade."

"An @FBI win against #Apple results in an insecurity mandate. A world where Americans can't sell secure products, but our competitors can," Snowden tweeted.

Snowden also vocally lambasted Google for initially not responding to the debate, though later retweeted Pichai's responses to the issue.


In an interview with CRN at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona, Spain, this week, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins said he supports Apple in the debate about encryption, though he did add that the issue is "incredibly complicated."

"I don't believe we should put backdoors in our products or any technology company should put backdoors in their technologies. ... It could weaken the privacy or security of solutions," Robbins told CRN. "There is no easy answer to this. … I believe encryption is incredibly important for protecting citizens' data and health-care information. All the reasons encryption was implemented are valid reasons." Robbins said there also needs to be more transparency about the balance between privacy and national security.


In an interview with CNBC this week, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said he stands with Apple, as no company should be forced to make backdoors into its products.

"I am absolutely not in favor and don't believe that we should do backdoors or be forced to do backdoors," Krzanich told CNBC.

That being said, Krzanich said, the government and Apple should work to find some sort of middle ground. He said technology companies do need to work with the federal government when properly subpoenaed and provide data needed for law enforcement.

"There probably is a way working together with agencies we can find a way to get them data and to really protect the citizens from the terrorists," Krzanich said.


AT&T was the first of the carriers to break its silence on the Apple/FBI debate, calling the issue a "very interesting case" during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Monday.

Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobile & Business Solutions for the Dallas-based carrier, said that privacy and security rights need to better balanced.

"Our personal view is that there has to be a balance between personal privacy and security. Right now, the laws are a little bit muddled. 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," de la Vega said.

Bill Gates

Unlike some of his tech competition, Microsoft founder Bill Gates is taking a measured approach to the Apple/FBI debate.

On Tuesday, Gates said Congress and the courts should strive to strike an appropriate balance between security and privacy.

"I do believe there are sets of safeguards where the government shouldn't have to be completely blind," Gates said. "But striking that balance -- clearly the government has taken information historically and used it in ways we didn't expect, going all the way back to say the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover."

Gates warned that emotions can interfere with privacy and security conversations, especially as it relates to terrorist attacks. He said that it's challenging to update policies right away. Gates also believes Apple can cooperate with the FBI in unlocking the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters without creating a so-called backdoor into every iPhone.

"All Apple's doing is delaying the decision," Gates said. "I don't think it's a big deal whether they gave in or didn't give in."

Gina Narcisi contributed to this report