The tech world is standing behind Apple almost unanimously in its fight against the FBI over unlocking the San Bernardino attacker’s iPhone.
An amicus brief submitted today and signed by Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon and other tech companies supports Apple’s belief that unlocking the phone would set a dangerous precedent. Twitter, Airbnb, Reddit and others also submitted a separate brief backing Apple.
An amicus — or “friend of the court” — brief lets companies and outside entities add comments to court cases that they aren’t involved with. The briefs filed today focus on the scope of the All Writs Act and the risks to privacy and security that would come with an FBI win.
Apple and the companies that filed the amicus brief believe that what the FBI is asking Apple to do is beyond the scope of the All Writs Act, an act that allows the government to compel a company to help in an investigation.
“We believe the issues raised by the Apple case are too important to rely on a narrow statute from a different technological era to fill the Government’s perceived gap in current law,” Microsoft president Brad Smith wrote in a blog post announcing the brief. “Instead we should look to Congress to strike the balance needed for 21st century technology.”
— Brad Smith (@BradSmi) February 26, 2016
“We want to use the opportunity to help clarify the limited scope of the All Writs Act to be sure that it isn’t misused or misinterpreted in a way that would hurt both technology companies and users,” Mozilla chief legal officer Denelle Dixon-Thayer said in a statement.
Companies like Microsoft have also touched on how the case would erode trust in American products. If the government can force American companies to break into their own devices, users may just turn to products made in other markets to conduct private communications.
“These types of actions are leading to increasingly strong reactions that are undermining trust in American technology around the world,” Smith said in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee last week. “They conflict with long-term opportunities to encourage growth, investment, and innovation in the global technology sector, a sector led by U.S. companies and contributing to millions of good U.S. jobs.”
While many public-facing American companies are banding together behind Apple now, it wasn’t clear from the beginning that the iPhone maker would see such support. Because many in the public see this as a case where Apple is just choosing not to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone, the case could prove to be a PR disaster.
According to a report in the New York Times today, companies feared the showdown was too dangerous to get involved with early on, but changed their minds once they realized the implications of an FBI win. However, the companies would have been more eager to back Apple in a less-heated case.
“Critics of Apple’s approach believe that the company could have quietly complied with the government’s request to help break into the iPhone and then taken a public stand in a more favorable case,” the New York Times noted.
However, it is still impressive that such a wide swath of U.S. companies have come together over this issue.
“While the companies that signed this brief are often fierce competitors, our unity … reflects our deep, shared concerns about the potential ramifications of this case for technology and for our customers,” Smith said in today’s post. “At stake are fundamental questions about privacy, safety, and the rule of law.”
There was a separate brief filed today in support of the FBI by six of the San Bernardino victims’ family members. The attack killed 14 people and left 22 wounded.
The first brief filed today was signed by Twitter, Airbnb, eBay, LinkedIn, Square, Atlassian, Automattic, Cloudflare, GitHub, Kickstarter, Mapbox, Meetup, Reddit, Squarespace, Twilio, and Wickr.
The second brief included Amazon.com, Box, Cisco, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, Nest Labs, Pinterest, Slack, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Yahoo.
The tech companies are also joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a host of legal scholars.