Why Apple Fears Britain’s ‘Snooper’s Charter’

AP Photo/Andy Wong
AP Photo/Andy Wong

Apple is formally opposing a proposed UK law that requires tech companies to provide a way for authorities to access encrypted messages. The software giant has prided itself on communications so secure that not even it can read some messages. Under so-called “end-to-end encryption,” only sender and receiver have the capacity to unscramble a message.

But British leaders, including Prime Minister David Cameron, argue that ultra-tight encryption prevents intelligence agencies from tracking down terrorists. “Do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?” he asked earlier this year.

In its formal response to Britain’s Investigatory Powers Bill, Apple claimed that there is no such thing as a message that can be read by the government, but not by malicious hackers.

“The best minds in the world cannot rewrite the laws of mathematics. Any process that weakens the mathematical models that protect user data will by extension weaken the protection,” Apple wrote in a filing.

Apple is doubly worried that the UK law would apply globally (what they call “extra-territoriality”). Britain wants companies to comply with search warrants, whether they are based domestically or abroad.

This could set a dangerous precedent, whereby any state actor, including China or Russia, could demand the same access to user data. While Britain may have noble intentions, authoritarian regimes may want to spy on Apple’s vast user base for other, less-liberal reasons.

Finally, the bill could cause all kinds of complications from overlapping and contradicting rules. In the ever-shifting landscape of privacy laws, one country may consider a British spy warrant “hacking,” and Apple would be forbidden by law to confirm whether they had to give authorities access to the data.

A growing industry of startups are based on difficult-to-crack encryption (designed especially to prevent government spying). This would put startups in a very difficult situation.

The British government will take up the bill next year.


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