Black Lives Matter gets behind Apple in encryption fight

The Black Lives Matter movement is lining up behind Apple in its fight with the FBI. 

In recent weeks, voices in the movement and civil rights activists such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson have met with Apple officials and filed briefs on behalf of the company, which is resisting a court order to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. 


The groups are getting involved because they say the case touches on long-standing concerns about police brutality and the illegal surveillance of activists, going back to the days of Martin Luther King Jr.

“This case cuts right to the heart of our right to live free from unwarranted government surveillance,” Jackson wrote to the judge overseeing the case between Apple and the FBI.

The activists’ cooperation with 

Apple could help the company argue that the issues it is fighting for are much broader than just the San Bernardino shooter’s phone.

“It raises eyebrows that we, as young activists working in a specific realm, found our role in this fight between Apple and the FBI,” said Linda Sarsour, a member of Justice League NYC, an activist group pushing criminal justice reform and protesting police violence.

The FBI is seeking powers that would “most directly” affect “people of color, immigrant communities, Muslim communities and political activists,” she added. 

Apple defied a court order last month asking the company to create software that would allow the FBI to hack the phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two assailants who killed 14 people in last December’s terrorist attack in Southern California.

Apple resisted, characterizing the software as a dangerous “back door” that may give hackers access to all iPhones. They also insisted that complying would set a precedent that empowers law enforcement to force other companies to undermine their security.

The FBI maintained that its request was narrowly tailored to one phone and one case. The Justice Department blasted Apple’s privacy concerns as “false” and “corrosive” and accused the company of using the case as a marketing ploy.   

The typical players quickly fell into line. 

Silicon Valley and privacy advocates both on and off Capitol Hill rushed to Apple’s defense, while law enforcement officials and national security hawks in Congress bashed the company for flouting a valid court order.

A few weeks later, the dispute crept onto the radar of Black Lives Matter activists and civil rights groups around the country.

“It was definitely never part of our portfolio of issues,” Sarsour said. “We’re prioritizing stop killing black people in the streets.” 

These groups soon determined the case directly affected their campaigns to reduce police violence. 

After meeting with Apple to discuss the issue, the activists made their argument in a letter to Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym, who is overseeing the case. Roughly half a dozen civil rights organizations and prominent individuals, including Opal Tometi, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, signed on to the memo.

Sarsour said that secure technology is vital to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We’re millennials,” said Sarsour, 36. “This is how we bring people together.”

“In the context of white supremacy and police violence, Black people need encryption,” tweeted Malkia Cyril, director of the Center for Media Justice, a racial justice group that also signed on to the letter. 

DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter organizer and Baltimore mayoral candidate, said that iPhone encryption kept police from easily reading his phone after being arrested at a protest.

“They were secure. The police couldn’t access my ­info,” he said in a long string of tweets defending Apple.

Over the last year, news outlets and advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have also uncovered evidence the government is digitally monitoring Black Lives Matter protesters, even flagging tweets containing #BlackLivesMatter.

The revelations have fueled activists’ fears.

“There has been undue attention on these groups,” said Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice program.

Activists fear an FBI win in its standoff with Apple would lead to more unchecked monitoring.

According to reports, the FBI is seeking access to at least a dozen other iPhones in various cases around the country. Several district attorneys have also said they would use an FBI victory as precedent to try and crack hundreds of locked phones that were seized. 

“What we think the federal government is trying to do is, through their crackdown on Apple, they’re trying to suppress a current movement that is flourishing and has had many victories around the country,” Choudhury said.

To veterans of the civil rights battles of the 1960s, the Apple-FBI feud evokes memories of the bureau’s notorious Cointelpro surveillance efforts. The long-discontinued program used a variety of covert — and at times, illegal — techniques to spy on activist groups, including civil rights organizations such as King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Jesse Jackson, who worked for King, said in his letter that the case “is a matter of deep personal concern for me,” given this history. 

“If the government prevails against Apple, it is my fear that it will accelerate — and make easier — government efforts to ‘hack’ into the legitimate activities of civil rights organizations,” he added.

This support gives Apple an unexpected, yet potentially powerful, ally in its standoff with the FBI.

Jackson “comes with a constituency,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). “The moment he elevates the conversation, they will start paying attention.”

“For a long time,” Thompson added, “it was law enforcement and the tech industry kind of back and forth.”

Congress is debating whether to move legislation that could give police greater access to encrypted data. Civil rights leaders will likely play an increasing role alongside privacy advocates in opposing such measures.

“I think their voice is vital,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeHouse to hold first hearing on slavery reparations in over a decade House to hold first hearing on slavery reparations in over a decade Democrats begin Mueller hearings with Watergate-era witness MORE (D-Texas), another CBC member who has worked on cybersecurity legislation and is the top Democrat on the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations.

Jackson Lee, like Thompson, believes law enforcement and the tech community must find a middle ground that addresses both sides’ concerns.

“But any time you can broaden the debate to populations that have been typically excluded, I think it is important,” Jackson Lee said. “Where there is an injustice you will find the civil rights community.”