An FBI demand that Apple unlock an iPhone risks setting a dangerous precedent that could have a chilling effect on human rights, the United Nations rights chief warned.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s intervention came after Apple’s largest rivals backed the tech giant’s bid to resist the US government demand seeking to access the iPhone used by one of the attackers in a deadly rampage in San Bernardino, California in December.
“In order to address a security-related issue related to encryption in one case, the authorities risk unlocking a Pandora’s Box that could have extremely damaging implications for the human rights of many millions of people, including their physical and financial security,” Zeid said in a statement.
He warned that the FBI order would “set a precedent that may make it impossible for Apple or any other major international IT company to safeguard their clients’ privacy anywhere in the world”.
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The FBI wants to unlock the iPhone used by Syed Farook, who was behind the San Bernardino massacre along with his wife Tashfeen Malik that left 14 people dead.
The agency has argued that by introducing encryption that can lock data, making it accessible only to the user, Apple and other tech companies are essentially creating “warrant-proof zones” for criminals and others that will cripple law enforcement and jeopardise public security.
Apple has in return said that the only way to unlock the handset would be to introduce a weakened operating system, which could potentially leak out and be exploited by hackers and foreign governments.
Zeid said the FBI “deserves everyone’s full support” in its investigation into what he described as an “abominable crime”. But he added: “This case is not about a company – and its supporters – seeking to protect criminals and terrorists, it is about where a key red line necessary to safeguard all of us from criminals and repression should be set.
“There are many ways to investigate whether or not these killers had accomplices besides forcing Apple to create software to undermine the security features of their own phones. “It is potentially a gift to authoritarian regimes, as well as to criminal hackers.”
Zeid said encryption tools were widely used around the world, including by human rights defenders, civil society, journalists, whistle-blowers and political dissidents facing persecution and harassment. “Encryption and anonymity are needed as enablers of both freedom of expression and opinion, and the right to privacy. Without encryption tools, lives may be endangered.”