Google, tech groups back Apple in encryption fight

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Late Wednesday afternoon, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said forcing companies to help law enforcement hack into phones “could compromise user privacy.”

His words were one of the strongest statements of support for Apple after the iPhone maker refused to comply with a judge’s order to help law enforcement unlock a smartphone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino, Calif., attack last year. 

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After nearly a day of silence, a series of carefully crafted statements of support for Apple began rolling in from tech companies and Washington trade groups that represent some of the largest players in the industry. 

“Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy,” Google’s CEO said in a series of tweets supporting Apple. “We know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism.

"We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. ... But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent.”

Google owns the rival Android operating system for smartphones, which is the only phone system with a bigger marketshare in the United States than Apple’s iOS. 

The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) expressed “worry about the broader implications” of the Apple court order, while the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) voiced “concern” at the precedent it would set. 

The ITI represents companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, BlackBerry and dozens of others. The CCIA does not represent Apple but its members include many of the same firms, including Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon and others. 

The Internet Association came out with a strong statements against weakening encryption, not mentioning Apple specifically. The trade group Reform Government Surveillance released a statement arguing companies should not be “required to build in backdoors” but said its members were committed to helping law enforcement process legal orders. 

Apple’s decision to fight the court order and CEO Tim Cook’s strong public rebuke set off a high-profile court fight about encryption that has been ongoing for years. 

The company’s iPhones have a feature that can auto-erase information if the passcode is entered incorrectly too many times. A magistrate judge had ordered Apple to help bypass that feature so the FBI could try to break the code with brute force. 

The fight highlights Apple’s attempt to distinguish its business model from rivals in Silicon Valley, whose success and profits are based more on gathering user information to target ads. The New York Times reported that there was some discomfort among other tech companies, and that some had perceived Apple’s stance as overly antagonistic.