Apple-FBI case could have serious global human rights impacts, says UN rights chief

(UN Photo / Pierre Albouy)Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, addresses the opening of the thirty-first session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva Feb. 29, 2016.

Geneva - The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein has urged the authorities in the United States to proceed with great caution in the ongoing legal process involving the Apple computer company and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Zeid noted it could have potentially negative ramifications for the human rights of people all over the world in a March 4  statement.

"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.

The FBI has a court order calling on Apple to help unlock an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, the gunman behind the San Bernardino attack.

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Before police fatally shot them dead, Farook and his wife killed 14 people in the California city in December.

The FBI want to change the phone settings so unlimited attempts can be made at the passcode without deleting the data. It also wants Apple to help it apply a way to rapidly try different combinations to avoid inputting each one manually.

"I recognize this case is far from reaching a conclusion in the U.S. courts, and urge all concerned to look not just at the merits of the case itself but also at its potential wider impact."

Zeid emphasized that, "The FBI deserves everyone's full support in its investigation into the San Bernardino killings."

"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."

The U.N. rights chief said there many ways to investigate whether or not the killers had accomplices apart from 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."

DNA India reported, however that some criminals have gone over to new iPhones as their "device of choice" to "commit wrongdoing due to strong encryption Apple Inc has placed on their products, three law enforcement groups said in a court filing."

'SET A PRECEDENT'

Zeid said, however, that a successful case against Apple in the United States "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."

He said it is a potential gift to authoritarian regimes along with 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."

The UN commissioner noted that encryption tools are extensively worldwide, including by human rights defenders, civil society, journalists, whistle-blowers and political dissidents who can face persecution and harassment.

Zeid asserted, "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."

Zeid said there is no shortage of global security forces ready to take advantage of the ability to hack people's phones if they can.

"And there is no shortage of criminals intent on committing economic crimes by accessing other people's data," he added.

"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."

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