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Mozilla Foundation Backs Apple In Encryption Case With Federal Government


Apple faces much criticism in Congress but now has plenty of support in the tech industry. Facebook and Twitter have both said they side with Apple in its battle with the federal government. Apple is resisting a demand to build software to crack the encryption on one iPhone used by a shooter in the San Bernardino attacks. The Mozilla Foundation, which advocates openness, has now launched a pro-encryption publicity campaign, and we're going to talk about that with Mark Surman, who's the foundation's executive director. Welcome to the program, sir.

MARK SURMAN: Happy to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: So everybody's landed on a pretty hard case here, haven't they, because one iPhone linked here to a shooter in San Bernardino. Why should that one iPhone not be cracked open?

SURMAN: Well, it's difficult to talk about tech policy in the context of something so horrific, but, you know, what is being asked for as far as we understand it really is an overreach because what Apple is saying is that it's software that will be written once, but a software, that once it exists, has the potential to be used for others.

INSKEEP: Martin Kaste, one of our correspondents, noted the other day on the air that even with an encrypted iPhone, there's an immense amount of information that law enforcement officials can get. They can find out, for example, what phone calls were made and to whom, and any number of messages that were sent in various directions can be tracked. Are we actually getting that much protection from encryption?

SURMAN: Well, encryption is there to protect the everyday things we do with the Internet. All of us transact online, communicate, you know, in intimate ways online, and encryption is there when we choose to be private, to make sure things are private. In many ways, this spot we're at right now with the help of the Internet is where we were with the environment in the '50s. There were scientists who knew that pollution existed, but, you know, most of us didn't, and it took decades for us to understand that the help of the environment was something we all needed to take on. And I think that's where we're headed with the help of the Internet. If we undermine encryption, we undermine something that all of us use every day.

INSKEEP: One last thing, coming back to this San Bernardino case, we don't know what's in that iPhone. We don't even know if it's important. But let's spin out the worst case scenario as a prosecutor might. Suppose your side wins, that phone is never opened, and as a result, the government misses a chance to find some other suspect and disrupt some attack. The attack goes forward, and people are killed. Will that have been worth it in order to protect encryption?

SURMAN: We need to find ways to really be able to seek communications before they're sent or after they're sent and actually work with law enforcement on doing this well. There are alternative ways to get information, getting access to it before or after it's encrypted. What we want to avoid is creating a precedent where encryption can be broken by an arbitrary third party.

INSKEEP: So you're saying, in essence, it may well be harder to catch terrorists, but you can still work at it, and the extra difficulty is worth it.

SURMAN: You can still work at it, and we actually all need to work at it as a society how we do law enforcement well and also be able to build an Internet that is secure for the legitimate business we do online.

INSKEEP: Mark Surman of the Mozilla Foundation, thanks very much.

SURMAN: Thank you very much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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