Apple's Tim Cook Defends Encryption. When Will Other Tech CEOs Do So?
More high-profile titans need to use their platforms to make crystal clear how important encryption is to users everywhere
It seems everywhere he goes these days, Apple CEO Tim Cook is out there forcefully and publicly defending his company’s decision to provide iPhone users with end-to-end text messaging and FaceTime encryption to protect against the constant threat of criminal hackers and foreign governments. The question is: when will other tech company leaders follow his lead?
If we’re going to avoid having a horrible law banning encryption passed in the next year, more of the tech company giants’ high-profile representatives – the Mark Zuckerbergs, Marissa Mayers and Eric Schmidts – need to use their platforms as the world’s most well-known technology chiefs to make crystal clear how important encryption is to users everywhere.
US and UK officials have not let up on their months-long PR blitz villainizing encryption in an attempt to force tech companies to provide a surveillance backdoor into their products. This, despite the fact that officials still haven’t produced any evidence that encryption was involved in the planning of any of the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.
Not that it should matter; even if terrorists do use encrypted communications apps there are plenty of ways to track them and plenty of reasons to still encourage the technology’s use. On 60 Minutes earlier this week, Cook explained why encryption is so important and why installing backdoors for government access to everyone’s communications is such a bad idea:
Here’s what the situation is on your smartphone today, on your iPhone, there’s likely health information, there’s financial information. There are intimate conversations with your family, or your co-workers. There’s probably business secrets and you should have the ability to protect it. And the only way we know how to do that, is to encrypt it. Why is that? It’s because if there’s a way to get in, then somebody will find the way in. There have been people that suggest that we should have a back door. But the reality is if you put a back door in, that back doors for everybody, for good guys and bad guys.
Unfortunately, Cook is badly outnumbered by an onslaught of ignorant politicians making misleading and false statements about how encryption works and why we should ban it. And it isn’t just a problem in the US and the UK: all over the world countries are grappling with their sudden loss of power to surveil everything their citizenry says or does. A judge in Brazil briefly ordered Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging application be blocked across the entire country because the service has no way of decrypting a suspect’s communications.
Thankfully the court backed down, but in his statement on that ruling, Mark Zuckerberg did not even mention the word “encryption”, let alone explain why it’s so important that every user be given this protection even if it means that the government can never access the content. Other tech companies, while they rightfully oppose the government’s push to ban encryption, have not been nearly as vocal in public as Apple, in many cases speaking through privately through lobbyists or industry representatives.
That’s not to say these companies aren’t doing anything: they’ve all released statements at various points condemning attacks on encryption; Facebook’s WhatsApp has brought end-to-end encryption to more people – over 800 million – than any other service; and Google’s engineering team has been a leader in securing much of the web in the post-Snowden era.
But this is much more than an engineering fight – it’s a political one where public opinion is crucial. And if the CEOs of these tech companies and their highest-profile representatives aren’t out there every day loudly fighting for our right to encryption where millions of people can hear them, then it’s quite likely we might wake up one day and find that the US or UK has passed some awful bill, which will only encourage China to do the same – and very soon half the world may try to outlaw encryption in some way, shape or form.