Apple Inc on Monday criticised a UK proposal that would give law enforcement and national security officials more power to monitor communications, the latest flash point between technology companies and Western governments.
In an eight-page submission to the British Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee, Apple said the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill would threaten the privacy of “the personal data of millions of law-abiding citizens”.
In November, the UK government proposed expanding its spying powers and changing surveillance laws to require companies such as Apple to retain “permanent interception capabilities” for communications, including “the ability to remove any encryption”. The bill would grant authorities access to information about what websites individuals have accessed and spell out explicitly for the first time the rules that govern authorities’ powers to hack computers to gain access to communications.
It includes judicial approval for warrants for the most intrusive powers, a process that would bring the UK system more in line with the US and some other European countries.
Technology companies and Western governments have clashed repeatedly in recent years over officials’ ability to monitor communications. Tech companies, including Apple, applied encryption more widely following the 2013 revelations about government surveillance by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Officials say wider use of encryption is a boon to criminals and terrorists.
Calls to weaken such encryption have intensified following the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Apple executives, including CEO Tim Cook, have taken a leading public role in opposing government efforts to weaken encryption.
Apple has been encrypting some communications on its iPhones since 2010. In 2014, it introduced a type of encryption that the company says it cannot decode. Alphabet Inc’s Google offers similar encryption, and dozens of texting apps promise to shield communications from government or commercial snooping.
US Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey recently said technology companies might need to reconsider their “business model”.
President Barack Obama has said technology companies and law enforcement officials should work together more closely to balance security and privacy concerns when it comes to encryption and counterterrorism efforts. The White House has stopped short of offering specific proposals. Some law enforcement and counterterrorism officials believe that technology companies should retain the ability to decrypt the communications, in response to a lawful request.
In its letter to UK officials, Apple showed no sign of relenting. “Protecting our customers and earning their trust is fundamental to our business model,” the letter says.
It says encryption is important to protect users against hacking and cyber attacks. “Without strong defence, these attacks have the potential to impose chaos, and threaten our way of life, economic stability and infrastructure,” the letter said. “Increasingly stronger — not weaker — encryption is the best way to protect against these threats.”
The UK government is expected to craft a more formal proposal to broaden investigatory and surveillance powers sometime in the spring, and the Apple letter is meant to influence that process. In the US, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr and vice-chairman Dianne Feinstein have said they are sympathetic to the requests by law enforcement for ways to intercept certain encrypted messages and they are studying whether legislative changes are necessary.