Apple's Chinese Red Herrings

Far from yielding to the FBI's call to help it gain access to messages stored in a terrorist's cell phone, Apple is doubling down: Apple is working to increase its iCloud encryption, which would inhibit even Apple itself from retrieving password-protected customer data stored in its cloud.

Apple uses many arguments in defense of its position. Prominent among them is one particularly difficult to follow, which states that if Apple granted to the U.S. government a way to decrypt the phones of terrorists, this move will set a precedent, and Apple will be forced to do the same for other governments. In his article in The Guardian, Spencer Ackerman writes that

Authoritarian governments including Russia and China will demand greater access to mobile data should Apple lose a watershed encryption case brought by the FBI, leading technology analysts, privacy experts and legislators have warned.

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a leading legislator on privacy and tech issues, "warned the FBI to step back from the brink or risk setting a precedent for authoritarian countries."

China, however, has never shown that it will be resistant to proceeding if it cannot find an American precedent. The very idea that precedence is important is a legalistic, Anglo Saxon notion. Moreover, even American corporations will not hesitate to act, even if there is no precedent. They just figure it will cost them some legal fees to establish one.

Furthermore, should we stop doing what we consider important for our security or other core values, just because the Chinese may use it as a talking point? For instance, should we stop censoring child pornography just because China may point to our limiting the right of free speech in this case and then use it as an excuse to further limit the rights of their citizens? Should we stop prohibiting medical and food marketers from making unproven claims -- just because China may insist it can prevent Chinese corporations from making statements about things China frowns upon?

Some of Apple's defenders hold that if Apple helps the FBI, it will be unable to tell the Chinese government that only the sender and receiver can decrypt communications protected by its new program; that it cannot break it. However, Apple already gave up on this argument when it told a U.S. court that to proceed would cost too much, i.e. admitting that it can be done. The Wall Street Journal noted it would cost only about the same as one engineer's yearly salary.

Last but not least, Apple is already in effect accommodating Chinese censorship. It designed its News App so that iPhone users have been able to access Apple News abroad -- but not in mainland China. (In a CNN article "Apple News Is Blocked in China," Sophia Yan and Hope King wrote that after changing their iPhone settings to reflect the United States as their region, CNN reporters successfully downloaded the News app in mainland China and Hong Kong. The app functioned normally in Hong Kong while connected to a local mobile network, but in mainland China, previously loaded stories could not be retrieved, and instead an error message appeared.)

Larry Salibra, founder of Pay4Bugs (a software testing service) called Apple's actions "very disconcerting." According to a New York Times article by Paul Mozur and Katie Benner titled "Apple Is Said to Deactivate its New App in China," Salibra posted the following on Reddit:

They're censoring news content that I downloaded and stored on my device purchased in the USA, before I even enter China ...On device censorship is much different than having your server blocked by the Great Firewall or not enabling a feature for customers with certain country iTunes account... That Apple has little choice doesn't make it any less creepy or outrageous.

Apple's defiance is supported by other high-tech companies. None should act as if they are unwilling to cooperate with governments if this may limit the privacy or, for that matter, the free speech of some of their customers. For instance, until 2010 Google self-censored its search engine for Chinese users. Not only did the company filter out results containing China's list of banned terms, it also blocked entire websites and web addresses. Additionally, users would get a different list of search results than users in China. The former would not see any results deemed "offensive," whereas the latter would get a list of results that might not load, depending on their content.

Apple and company should stop acting as holier than thou, and abide by laws Congress enacted, by judgment handed down by courts, and by providing by what the FBI, Department of Justice, and the White House show is essential for homeland security and public safety.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Privacy in a Cyber Age, was recently published by Palgrave. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, send an e-mail with the subject line "Subscribe" to