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FBI decryption pursuit holds global implications, says UN human rights chief

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has voiced his support for Apple in its fight with the Federal Bureau of Investigation over digital privacy and encryption.

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United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein arrives for the 31st session of the Human Rights Council at the UN European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, February 29. Mr. Al Hussein on Thursday sided with Apple in the ongoing battle with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation over the encryption of a terrorist's iPhone on Thursday.

Denis Balibouse/Reuters

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The United Nation’s high commissioner for human rights has voiced his support for Apple in its fight with the Federal Bureau of Investigation over iPhone privacy.

On Thursday, the high commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said that the results of Apple’s clash may hold unforeseen ramifications for human rights worldwide.

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“In order to address a security-related issue related to encryption in one case, the authorities risk unlocking a Pandora’s Box that could have extremely damaging implications for the human rights of many millions of people, including their physical and financial security,” he said in a statement.

The legal argument began when the FBI obtained a court order that would require Apple to bypass the password protection on one of the iPhones used by the shooters involved in the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in December. The FBI says that it is seeking information on Syed Rizwan Farook’s work phone to look for any connections to militant groups.

Apple asked for the order to be vacated, arguing that writing new code for one phone would establish a difficult precedent for consumer privacy.

Mr. Al Hussein joins leaders in the tech industry who have pledged their support to the Apple case. On Thursday, more than a dozen companies, including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft filed amicus briefs, or a form of outside comment, voicing their unity with Apple and their opposition to the US government’s ongoing anti-encryption efforts. Privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union filed their own briefs earlier in the week.

“The government has defended its application as limited to this case and this case alone, but the legal precedent it seeks cannot be so contained. If the government prevails, then this case will be the first of many requiring companies to degrade the security and to undermine the trust in their products so essential to privacy in the digital age,” the ACLU wrote in its argument.

Some of the relatives of the San Bernardino attack victims also filed their own amicus briefs, in opposition to Apple. They wrote that because the government had a valid search warrant, Apple’s argument about privacy is misdirected, as "one does not enjoy the privacy to commit a crime." They also argued against Apple’s argument that its computer code is a form of free speech that must be protected: "This is the electronic equivalent of unlocking a door – no expression is involved at all," they said.

Several law enforcement groups, including three in California and three at the federal level, also filed briefs that sided with the government.

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However, Salihin Kondoker, whose wife, Anies Kondoker, was injured in the December attacks, wrote a brief saying that he agreed with Apple’s privacy concerns.

“When I first learned Apple was opposing the order I was frustrated that it would be yet another roadblock,” he wrote. “But as I read more about their case, I have come to understand their fight is for something much bigger than one phone. They are worried that this software the government wants them to use will be used against millions of other innocent people. I share their fear.”


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