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Apple is formally opposing a proposed UK law that requires tech companies to provide a way for authorities to access encrypted messages. 

CEO Tim Cook has spoken frequently about the company’s commitment to make customers’ communications so secure that not even the iPhone maker can read their messages. Under so-called “end-to-end encryption,” only sender and receiver have the capacity to unscramble a message. That stands in contrast to other setups, where an Internet company storing messages in the cloud necessarily has a key to decrypt the messages.

British leaders, including Prime Minister David Cameron, argue that ultratight encryption prevents intelligence agencies from tracking down terrorists. 

“Do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?” Cameron asked earlier this year.

In its formal response to Britain’s Investigatory Powers Bill—called a “snooper charter” by critics—Apple claimed that there is no way to allow a message to be read by the government without opening it up to malicious hackers as well:

The best minds in the world cannot rewrite the laws of mathematics. Any process that weakens the mathematical models that protect user data will by extension weaken the protection.

Apple is doubly worried that the UK law would apply globally (what they call “extra-territoriality”). Britain wants companies to comply with search warrants, whether they are based domestically or abroad.

A Dangerous Precedent

This could set a dangerous precedent, whereby any state, including China or Russia, could demand the same access to user data. While Britain may have noble intentions, authoritarian regimes may want to spy on Apple’s vast user base for other, less-liberal reasons.

Finally, the bill could cause all kinds of complications from overlapping and contradicting rules. In the ever-shifting landscape of privacy laws, one country may consider a British spy warrant “hacking,” and Apple would be forbidden by law to confirm whether they had to give authorities access to the data.

There is a growing industry of startups that are based on difficult-to-crack encryption. Some design their wares to prevent spying by hackers or governments, while others simply want to ensure the safety of their users’ data in a world of ever-changing threats. This would put startups in a very difficult situation—caught between laws that demand they protect users’ data and laws that demand they hand it over.

The British government will take up the bill next year. 

Photo by Valery Marchive

Gregory ferenstein

Former Staff Writer for ReadWrite. I started my career as a freelance writer in 2009 covering business innovation, did peer-reviewed research on Silicon Valley,(2016), architected bills in Congress (2017), and ran economic field experiments (2019).