Fines, jail for Apple execs over iPhone unlocking refusal? French bill clears next hurdle

France may soon have laws that would impose jail time on tech execs if their company fails to help decrypt data.


If new French bill passes, could tech execs such as Apple CEO Tim Cook be sentenced with jail time?

Image: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

French law makers have voted for new legislation that could introduce fines and jail time for tech execs if their company doesn't unscramble encrypted data for officials in a terror investigation.

If Apple's titanic battle with the FBI were to play out on French soil in the near future, the iPhone maker could face a €350,000 ($384,000) fine for failing to decrypt data and its execs could be jailed for five years.

That's if a new amendment to French reforms outlined in a bill for "strengthening the fight against organized crime, terrorism and financing" survives subsequent votes in coming months.

The amendment had its first reading in France's National Assembly on Tuesday and was cleared in the lower chamber by 472 votes to 32, Bloomberg reported.

"The refusal by a private organization to communicate data protected by its own encryption to the judicial authority investigating terrorist crimes or offenses defined in Chapter I of Title II of Book IV of the Criminal Code is punishable by five years' imprisonment and a €350,000 fine," the amendment reads.

If it does pass in its current form, companies such as Apple would be compelled to assist French authorities in decrypting data, whether or not the firm held a decryption key to a device.

This point is central to Apple's fight with the FBI over a locked iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Since iOS 8, Apple has said it is technically impossible to unlock an iPhone without knowing the user's passcode. However, the FBI is attempting to impose a court order on Apple, compelling it to create a custom version of iOS to bypass security features designed to prevent a brute-force attack on the passcode.

Earlier this week, AFP reported that French parliamentary deputies voted for the amendment against the wishes of the government, which so far has refused to introduce laws to introduce mandatory backdoors for national security.

"The rule aims to force phone makers to give investigators data and it will be up to the manufacturer to use whatever technique is necessary," Philippe Goujon, the Republican lawmaker who proposed the amendment, told Bloomberg.

"The target is to have them cooperate. The aim is not to break the encryption. The principle is that manufacturers should cooperate."

The Senate still must review the bill and a final vote in the lower house is expected in coming months.

Goujon said the government will seek to alter the amendment but "not to change the target".

Additionally, the bill proposes that every person who doesn't cooperate during an investigation will be face two years in jail and a €15,000 fine.

Read more about Apple and encryption