For simplicity and security, Apple needs to draw a line now to prevent further ones

The court order handed to Apple isn't so much a slippery slope; it's more a quagmire wrapped in a minefield and filled to the brim with toxic waste.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor on

Should United States law-enforcement authorities be successful in forcing Apple's hand to help them break into an iPhone 5C, the impact of this decision will have far-reaching repercussions internationally. If the US is able to get into a device, why shouldn't Russia or China be able to force the same directive?

When speaking to ZDNet last week, Australian Children's eSafety Commissioner Alastair MacGibbon said there is a difference between what is going on in America to what could potentially happen in other nations.

"[It's] a perfectly valid question, but this is a conundrum faced by any multi-national company, and Apple is not immune to those forms of consideration," he said.

"In fact, I would argue that Apple, as the well cashed-up company that makes enormous profits from manufacturing and selling these devices with probably extraordinary in-house and external legal advisers, is best placed to make the decisions on how it will act in any jurisdiction. So this is not new to them.

"[Using] product safety as an example, a product needs to be compliant to different jurisdictions, and the company makes a decision whether or not it sells to those jurisdictions. It'll make a determination if it wants staff in those jurisdictions, sometimes for those same security questions."

That Apple has the legal resources and ability to determine which nations it wishes to do business with is not in dispute. Rather, the consequence of this order is that Apple must also then make decryption of devices a part of its business, and if it doesn't wish to comply, then it should remove itself from that jurisdiction.

Given the importance that China now has in Apple earnings -- in October last year, the company made $23 billion in operating income, and Tim Cook has said previously that China would become its biggest market -- the decision to pull itself out of China is not one that it is going to make.

The idea of governments and their legal systems across the world being able to call on Apple to use an FBI-endorsed version of iOS sat well with the eSafety Commissioner.

"That might well be in Russia, by the way, from time to time, I don't know what matters it would be, so long as it is not extra-judicial and it's not for breaching people's human rights, then it may well happen there," MacGibbon told ZDNet.

For a company that is increasingly putting user privacy and security at the centre of its pitch to customers, though, such compliance would undo years of hard work.

If we accept the argument that MacGibbon puts forward -- that a democratic nation with proper legal oversight is making a reasonable request through its courts -- then it follows that Apple must then determine which nations it feels are worthy of such cooperation.

Unfortunately, the real world is never as black and white as the comparison between a country like the United States and China.

If the US can access iPhone data, why can't its allies in Western Europe, as well as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea? Would Apple determine that India, Indonesia, Taiwan, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia are able to receive its compliance? What about nations that are either recovering from internal strife or still suffering from it, like Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Libya, or Iraq?

Any such decisions made by Cupertino would be messy, and involve dealing with many shades of grey. Therefore, rather than attempt to thread the geopolitical needle, a much better choice for the company and its customers is to apply Occam's razor and refuse to help all comers. In this way, Apple is treating all jurisdictions equally, with the same amount of fairness.

It might be that Apple is doomed in a vain attempt to stand up to the US government, but if any company is able to take on this fight, and has the motivations to do so, it is Apple. That it has received the backing of other tech chiefs is but the latest sign that the surveillance conducted by governments across the world is drawing a reaction.

Until Apple and other mobile phone makers are able to produce the hardware and software combination that removes completely and utterly the avenue that the FBI is pursuing, it is right that the company takes the stance it is taking. Otherwise, it must embark on the unenviable process of determining which countries are worthy of its help, and which are not.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on the Monday Morning Opener:

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