GENEVA (4 March 2016) — The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Friday urged the US authorities to proceed with great caution in the ongoing legal process involving the Apple computer company and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), given its potentially negative ramifications for the human rights of people all over the world.
“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,” Zeid said. “I recognize this case is far from reaching a conclusion in the US courts, and urge all concerned to look not just at the merits of the case itself but also at its potential wider impact.”
“The FBI deserves everyone’s full support in its investigation into the San Bernardino killings,” Zeid said. “This was an abominable crime, and no one involved in aiding or abetting it should escape the law. But this case is not about a company – and its supporters — seeking to protect criminals and terrorists, it is about where a key red line necessary to safeguard all of us from criminals and repression should be set.”
“There are many ways to investigate whether or not these killers had accomplices besides forcing Apple to create software to undermine the security features of their own phones. This is not just about one case and one IT company in one country. It will have tremendous ramifications for the future of individuals’ security in a digital world which is increasingly inextricably meshed with the actual world we live in.”
“A successful case against Apple in the US will set a precedent that may make it impossible for Apple or any other major international IT company to safeguard their clients’ privacy anywhere in the world,” the UN Human Rights Chief said. “It is potentially a gift to authoritarian regimes, as well as to criminal hackers. There have already been a number of concerted efforts by authorities in other States to force IT and communications companies such as Google and Blackberry to expose their customers to mass surveillance.”
“Encryption tools are widely used around the world, including by human rights defenders, civil society, journalists, whistle-blowers and political dissidents facing persecution and harassment,” Zeid said. “Encryption and anonymity are needed as enablers of both freedom of expression and opinion, and the right to privacy. It is neither fanciful nor an exaggeration to say that, without encryption tools, lives may be endangered. In the worst cases, a Government’s ability to break into its citizens’ phones may lead to the persecution of individuals who are simply exercising their fundamental human rights.”
“There is, unfortunately, no shortage of security forces around the world who will take advantage of the ability to break into people’s phones if they can,” the High Commissioner said. “And there is no shortage of criminals intent on committing economic crimes by accessing other people’s data. Personal contacts and calendars, financial information and health data, and many other rightfully private information need to be protected from criminals, hackers and unscrupulous governments who may use them against people for the wrong reasons. In an age when we store so much of our personal and professional lives on our smart phones and other devices, how is it going to be possible to protect that information without fail-safe encryption systems?”
“So, in essence, what we have here is an issue of proportionality: in order to possibly – but by no means certainly — gain extra information about the dreadful crime committed by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife in San Bernardino, we may end up enabling a multitude of other crimes all across the world, including in the United States. The debate around encryption is too focused on one side of the security coin, in particular its potential use for criminal purposes in times of terrorism. The other side of the security coin, is that weakening encryption protections may bring even bigger dangers to national and international security.”
The UN human rights chief noted the decision earlier this week by a federal magistrate judge, in a separate case in New York, to reject a Government request to compel Apple to help it extract information from an iPhone belonging to a suspect in a drugs case.
He urged States to take inspiration from the Apple-FBI cases to hold a much-needed profound examination of the highly complex and constantly evolving issues relating to privacy and security in the digital age, given the importance of strong encryption in safeguarding security and human rights. Recalling a ground-breaking report on encryption by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye,* which concluded that encryption deserves strong protection, and an earlier report on ‘Privacy in the Digital Age’ produced by the UN Human Rights Office,** Zeid called on the 47-Member State Human Rights Council in particular to continue to examine the dramatic impact digital and other new technologies are having, and will continue to have, on human rights across the globe.
* 22 May 2015 report on encryption and anonymity by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression: http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/29/32. Drawing from research on international and national norms and jurisprudence, and the input of States and civil society, the report concludes that encryption and anonymity enable individuals to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age and, as such, deserve strong protection.