Apple vs FBI: The possible end of encryption

Here is a German version of this article.

It’s still completely open how the conflict between Apple and the US government about unlocking encrypted iPhones will end. But eventually, one of two outcomes will become reality:

  1. Apple will legitimately be freed from the demands to unlock encrypted iPhones through backdoors, even if this means that particular investigations involving criminal or terrorist acts will not be provided with the requested data access.
  2. Apple will be forced to obey investigators who in specific cases demand access to encrypted data by building a backdoor into its software.

If Apple manages to establish a legal or political right to protect user data through encryption as well as to fend off demands for backdoors (which could compromise the safety of millions), this would lead to at least some sort of legal certainty, not only for Apple but for every other tech company in the business of hosting and storing encrypted user data. In addition, Apple would manifest its increasingly thoroughly crafted image as defender of civil rights and might be rewarded with new sales records.

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However, if the other scenario occurs, if Apple will be forced to comply with the FBI demands, the impact will be profound and affect companies and individuals in the US and very soon everywhere else as well. By having a prominent precedence case, governments, judges and investigating authorities all around the world would see the decision as guidance.

In such a climate, all companies that offer products or services in which customer data is generated or stored would face a dilemma: Assuming that they do not want to create backdoors, they would practically be forced to remove those strong encryption features which prevent them from accessing and handing over customer data to investigators. The other alternative would be a legal obstacle race, a constant threat of massive fines, a public stigmatization as well the risk of sales and distribution bans. Only a few uncompromising idealists would likely consider that path. Those who primarily look for lasting, solid commercial success could not do else than comply with the quasi-ban on encryption.

As an example, let’s look at what would happen to end-to-end encryption which lately has become widespread among leading messaging apps. Today, users of apps such as Telegram, Signal, Threema or WhatsApp (Android) do not have to worry that third parties can read their messages. With end-to-end encryption, the keys needed to decrypt messages are stored only on the smartphones, meaning that neither the company operating the app nor other outsiders can access the chats. However, once a company such as Apple has been forced to provide access to user data despite this technically not being possible (and thus requiring a backdoor), services offering end-to-end encryption to their users basically would have to get rid of the encryption in order to comply with the subsequent official requests about data access.

Those companies would lose one of their core product features and a main driving factor to create trust among customers/users. From a user perspective, such a development would mean the end of privacy within the digital sphere. The few protagonists who would insist on offering strong encryption, for instance by moving to a country which does not follow international conventions, would operate on the edge of illegality and would thus expose themselves and their users to many risks and additional scrutiny.

For companies active within the technology sector as well as for all individuals who do not accept the prospect of an ultimate surveillance society, the described scenario is catastrophic.

So let’s hope that those who eventually end up making a decision in the iPhone case keep in mind the drastic consequences their verdict might have for every single person on this planet and for themselves.

Update March 12: It is already happening: US investigators are apparently starting to target WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption.

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  1. I really doubt that the ones making a decision in the iPhone case will be aware of the consequences their verdict might have.

    BTW, Does WhatsApp deploy end-to-end encryption? I thought people are using messengers like Telegram and Threema because it does not. (That’s the reason I don’t use it.)

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