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U.N. Rights Chief Says Unlocking Gunman's iPhone Could Open 'Pandora's Box'

The top human rights official at the United Nations warned the United States authorities on Friday that their efforts to force Apple to unlock an iPhone belonging to a gunman risked helping authoritarian governments and jeopardizing the security of millions around the world.

The remarks by Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, came as American investigators continued to press Apple to write software to help them gain access to an iPhone used by one of the gunmen in a shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in December. Though the F.B.I. says it is a one-time request, Apple and others have raised concerns that the case could set a precedent and could force technology firms to install so-called back doors in devices, potentially invading customer privacy.

Mr. al-Hussein said that American law enforcement agencies, in trying to break the encryption protecting one phone, "risk unlocking a Pandora's box," and that there were "extremely damaging implications" for the rights of many millions of people, with possible effects on their physical and financial security.

"A successful case against Apple in the U.S. will set a precedent that may make it impossible for Apple or any other major international I.T. company to safeguard their clients' privacy anywhere in the world," Mr. al-Hussein said in a statement. "It is potentially a gift to authoritarian regimes, as well as to criminal hackers."

Last month, a federal magistrate judge ordered Apple to bypass security functions on the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of two gunmen in the San Bernardino shooting, and the F.B.I. has said it wants Apple to write software that would give them access to the device.

Apple has resisted the order on the grounds that it violates the company's right to due process and that forcing it to write the software tramples on First Amendment rights. After some hesitation, many of the technology industry's biggest names, including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Snapchat and Yahoo, have filed court briefs supporting Apple and challenging the legal foundations of the government's case.

The high commissioner, who usually avoids taking positions aligned with commercial interests, said he felt strongly that American officials needed to weigh the uncertain benefits of gaining access to one phone against the broader effects of breaching personal security.

"In essence, what we have here is an issue of proportionality: In order to possibly — but by no means certainly — gain extra information about the dreadful crime committed by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife in San Bernardino, we may end up enabling a multitude of other crimes all across the world, including in the United States," he said.

The F.B.I. deserves full support in its investigation into the San Bernardino killings, Mr. al-Hussein said, but "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."

The encryption debate was "too focused on one side of the security coin, in particular its potential use for criminal purposes in times of terrorism," Mr. al-Hussein said. "The other side of the security coin is that weakening encryption protections may bring even bigger dangers to national and international security."

The high commissioner's intervention builds on growing awareness and concern among human rights experts about the crucial role of encryption for safeguarding freedom of speech and of opinion.

"Encryption and anonymity, separately or together, create a zone of privacy to protect opinion and belief," David Kaye, a United Nations expert on freedom of expression, said in a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council last year, addressing ways to shield individuals from scrutiny in hostile political, social, religious and legal environments.

[Source: By Nick Cumming-Bruce, The New York Times, Geneva, 04Mar16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 07Mar16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.