Can Apple block Britain from forcefully hacking its customers?

The company says that proposed legislation gives too much power to government surveillance, risking the trust businesses like Apple have built with their customers.

Home Secretary Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons, in London, on Nov. 4. British police and spies could get new powers to comb through citizens' online activity under a new law, designed to regulate authorities' access to internet activity. Ms. May has insisted that the government "will not be giving powers to go through people's browsing history," and says the law will contain safeguards against abuse.

Apple urged the British government on Monday to change a draft bill that would give new Internet surveillance powers to state authorities, which say they are "essential to tackle child sexual exploitation, to dismantle serious crime cartels, take drugs and guns off our streets and prevent terrorist attacks," according to the bill draft. 

In a statement to the Investigatory Powers Bill committee, which is considering whether to approve legislation that the government says aims to modernize the country’s security laws, the American tech giant exhorted UK lawmakers to avoid compromising the online security of millions of British citizens in exchange for unbridled access to the private communications of a small number of people who pose a threat.

“The creation of backdoors and intercept capabilities would weaken the protections built into Apple products and endanger all our customers,” Apple said in its submission, reports The Guardian.

“A key left under the doormat would not just be there for the good guys. The bad guys would find it too,” Apple wrote, referring to provisions of the bill it says could allow the government to demand that the company alter the way its messaging service, iMessage, works to allow security services to view messages sent by Apple customers. Currently, those messages are encrypted to prevent access by third parties.

The draft bill, which critics are calling a “snooper’s charter,” would also require the company to help the government hack into its own devices, Apple says.

But despite security warnings from the company and from Internet privacy defenders, it’s hard to predict whether the threat of increased government surveillance will register widely in Britain, where there’s less tension historically about giving up privacy for the sake of security, especially in the age of terrorism. 

British citizens tend to have a higher threshold for the actions of their spy agencies, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported. There are several reasons for this: For one, Britons are used to having their actions recorded, having lived under the watchful gaze of millions of surveillance cameras in cities and on roadways.

There’s also the kingdom's monarchical tradition, which prescribes that power be wielded from the top, or from the government, over the subjects at the bottom, as The Guardian’s executive editor, Jonathan Freedland, has pointed out.

“The extent to which Britain is still a monarchical country is very relevant,” he told The World, shortly after leaked documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed widespread US and UK spying in 2013.

The news didn’t rile Britons like it did Americans and others around the world.

"The big difference between Britain and America is that in the United States the Constitution begins with the words, ‘We the people.’ Power in Britain does not belong even formally to the people,” Mr. Freedland said.

Some high-profile Britons have raised alarms about the public’s apparent apathy toward government monitoring. The UK’s new surveillance commissioner, Tony Porter, who was formerly a counter-terrorism officer, warned that the British public is too complacent about increasingly intrusive government surveillance.

“The lack of public awareness about the nature of surveillance troubles me” he told The Guardian.

“The UK has some of the most surveillance cameras per head in the developed world,” Mr. Porter said. “That reputation spurs me on to make sure I make a difference. If I don’t make an impact, I won’t want to hang around,” he said.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.