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Apple says it will 'work closely' with the UK government over encryption, but it's not backing down

Tim cook stern apple ceoScott Olson/Getty ImagesTim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple.

Tim Cook has once again reaffirmed Apple’s support for strong encryption technology, telling the Irish Independent that the company has no plans to weaken the technology.

iMessage, Apple’s popular messaging client, uses end-to-end encryption. This means the messages cannot be intercepted and read by a third party — even police, or Apple itself.

Encryption products have risen in popularity following revelations of US spying by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, much to the frustration of law enforcement. There are fears that vital evidence is “going dark” — but technologists and privacy activists counter that the tech is essential for protecting users’ sensitive data.

There have been concerns that the UK’s Investigatory Powers Bill, introduced by the Conservative government earlier in November, would place limits on the use of encryption by tech companies. The government says it has no plans to do so, but there are still fears that the wording of the bill could force tech companies to weaken their protections.

Tim Cook said that he was confident that the UK wouldn’t weaken encryption. “The UK government has been clear publicly that they are not seeking to weaken encryption,” says Cook. “And so I take them at their word that they would not do that. And at the moment as you know, we encrypt iMessage end-to-end and we have no backdoor. And we have no intention of changing that. Any change made would contradict the UK government’s view that they would not weaken encryption.”

The Apple CEO told the Irish Independent that he expected to cooperate with the UK government throughout the legislative process: “I think that we’ll work closely with them. And I have every faith that through this process of the next year, give or take a year, that the bill will become very clear.”

He refused to be drawn on what would happen if Britain does undermine encryption, saying only that “I’m confident that they would not pass a bill that would weaken encryption because I take them at their word for it.”

His comments echo what he said to The Telegraph earlier this month. He told the paper that “it’s not the case that encryption is a rare thing that only two or three rich companies own and you can regulate them in some way. Encryption is widely available. It may make someone feel good for a moment but it’s not really of benefit. If you halt or weaken encryption, the people that you hurt are not the folks that want to do bad things. It’s the good people. The other people know where to go.”

Cook added he was “optimistic” that the UK would not weaken or ban encryption. “When the public gets engaged, the press gets engaged deeply, it will become clear to people what needs to occur. You can’t weaken cryptography. You need to strengthen it. You need to stay ahead of the folks that want to break it.”

The use of encryption by criminals is being discussed once again after a series of deadly attack in Paris last week. A report published on Sunday by The New York Times claims that the terrorists used encryption technology to communicate with militant jihadist group Islamic State, citing “European officials who had been briefed on the investigation but were not authorised to speak publicly.” (The story has since been apparently deleted.)

But encryption advocates have pointed out that the tech is also used by hundreds of millions of people, and it’s unlikely that any attempted ban would have any effect.

Tim Cook is one of strong encryption’s highest-profile supporters in the tech industry. In June 2015, he gave a speech in which he clearly laid out why he supports the technology. Weakening encryption is “incredibly dangerous,” he said.

“We’ve been offering encryption tools in our products for years, and we’re going to stay on that path. We think it’s a critical feature for our customers who want to keep their data secure. For years we’ve offered encryption services like iMessage and FaceTime because we believe the contents of your text messages and your video chats is none of our business.”

Some governments have also requested that they are given “back doors” that can give them access to online services, but Cook disagreed with that idea: “If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too. Criminals are using every technology tool at their disposal to hack into people’s accounts. If they know there’s a key hidden somewhere, they won’t stop until they find it … Removing encryption tools from our products altogether, as some in Washington would like us to do, would only hurt law-abiding citizens who rely on us to protect their data. The bad guys will still encrypt; it’s easy to do and readily available.”

In an open letter published on Apple’s website, Tim Cook lays out clearly Apple’s approach to privacy and cooperating with governments. It says (emphasis ours):

Finally, I want to be absolutely clear that we have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.

Our commitment to protecting your privacy comes from a deep respect for our customers. We know that your trust doesn’t come easy. That’s why we have and always will work as hard as we can to earn and keep it.

Cook also praised Europe’s approach to privacy while talking to the Irish Independent. He said that “I think Europe is leading the world on that topic and it’s great … I feel right at home when I come to Europe and talk about privacy.”

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