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Will Apple Take their No Back-Door 'Freedom of Speech' Argument to China?

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In a new report today there's a look back at the fact that Apple, Google, Facebook and other companies had accelerated their efforts to implement encryption in the wake of Snowden's disclosures about U.S. spying - including a program called Prism that culled private data from some of the largest U.S. tech companies.


In the Big Picture


The revelations made by Snowden prompted companies like Cisco and IBM to fight the perception that they were simply arms of the U.S. government because this was beginning to dent overseas sales, especially in countries like China. It was during this time frame that we learned that to appease any of China's concerns, Apple Assured China's Ministry that there were no Secret Backdoors in their new operating system powering the iPhone 6 in 2014.


Yet China wasn't swallowing what Apple had to sell on that issue and said that they were considering requiring all tech companies to provide a backdoor to their products. China's government has held back on this thus far due to protests, but that could turn on a dime.


In fact the last word on this issue thus far surfaced back in December 2015: "Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he was 'dissatisfied' with the U.S. position and hoped they respected China's law-making process and did not adopt 'double standards.' Hong added that "The draft of our anti-terrorism law mandates the obligation of telecommunications operators, Internet servers and service providers to assist public and state security organ in stopping and probing terrorist activities."


The Chinese Foreign Ministry was careful to shy away from using any formal verbiage regarding security backdoors. Yet the U.S. Government remained skeptical.


On a second front, yet in the same vein, we posted a report back in November 2015 titled "China Seeks to build its Own Secure Smartphones to ensure no Foreign Country Back Doors." In that report we noted that "China is seeking to make its own secure smartphones, in an attempt to insulate its handsets from U.S. surveillance." The Chinese government was to begin supporting Chinese smartphone companies at an accelerated rate in order to assist them in creating their own software needed to achieve their goals.


In the end, it's Snowden's revelations that opened a Pandora's Box and Apple's Tim Cook has decided to take this issue to any extreme necessary to win their battle with the government. But what will Apple do if China ever puts their foot down and demands a backdoor? Would Apple stand on free speech principles then and play Russian roulette with the company's future? Apple's future is the Chinese market and without their business they'd collapse on Wall Street in short order. This is nothing to take lightly, for sure. So in the big picture, Apple's gamble here fighting the U.S. Governeme is huge and so much bigger than just this one case at hand.


Apple's Fight Opens Door for Government-Proof Devices


With security issues being front and center of late, the Reuters report also sees that Apple's fierce fight with the U.S. Government is likely to accelerate development of government-proof devices from other companies big and small no matter what the outcome of the trial. Already, an emerging industry is marketing super-secure phones and mobile applications.


An Apple executive said the company will strengthen its encryption if it wins its court battle with the federal government, which last week secured a court order requiring Apple engineers to help extract data from a phone associated with the mass shootings in San Bernardino.


But even a government victory could have unintended consequences for law enforcement, potentially prompting a wave of investment by U.S. tech companies in security systems that even their own engineers can't access, said Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

"A success for the government in this case may further spur Apple and others to develop devices that the makers aren't privileged to crack," he said.


The fast-growing online storage provider Box has already made it a priority to give customers sole custody of data, said Joel De la Garza, chief information security officer at the company. The intent is to make it impossible for the company to access its customers' data - even under a government order, he said. "Our goal is to achieve a `zero-knowledge' state" for the company, he said, "where our customers have total control over their data." For more on this, read the full Reuters report here.


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