Tim Cook just sent a powerful warning to the US government

Apple CEO Tim Cook has reaffirmed his support for strong encryption at an awards ceremony on Tuesday, TechCrunch reports — and slammed law enforcement plans to undermine it as “incredibly dangerous.”

Cook’s pro-privacy speech comes just days after Facebook introduced support for the technology on its social network for the first time.

Strong encryption has become a contentious issue, and a source of rising tensions between the US government and the tech community.

The term refers to data masked in such a way that it cannot be understood by anyone who does not have the correct key to decrypt it. It can help internet users keep their sensitive communications safe online, but some people believe it poses a potential security risk, as it cannot be decrypted by authorities even with a search warrant.

Following revelations by exiled whistle-blower Edward Snowden over the past few years of mass government surveillance, big tech companies have increasingly incorporated strong encryption into their products.

Apple has previously taken a strong stance on the issue, with Cook writing in an open letter to customers that the company has “never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services … And we never will.” It’s a position that is frustrating law enforcement. When Apple announced it would implement strong encryption on its iOS mobile operating system, for example, one senior US police officer said the iPhone would “become the phone of choice for the pedophile.”

Speaking at an event hosted by Washington non-profit EPIC honouring him for “corporate leadership” on Tuesday, Cook rejected this analysis emphatically. “Like many of you, we at Apple reject the idea that our customers should have to make tradeoffs between privacy and security,” the CEO said. “We can, and we must provide both in equal measure. We believe that people have a fundamental right to privacy. The American people demand it, the constitution demands it, morality demands it.”

The US government is currently pleading with tech companies to move away from strong encryption. President Obama hasn’t called for an outright ban, but wants to be able to track communications when possible. “When we have the ability to track [online communication] in a way that is legal, conforms with due process, rule of law, and presents oversight, then that’s a capability we have to preserve,” he said in January. FBI director James Comey has slammed companies like Apple for using the tech, claiming they are aiding “bad guys” by doing so.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has also suggested he may outlaw the tech entirely — something that critics have said is totally unfeasible.

But Cook isn’t having any of this. “We think this [stance] is incredibly dangerous,” the CEO, said according to TechCrunch. “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 be given “back doors” that can give them access to online services, but Cook argued that “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.”

Facebook is also doubling down on its privacy policies. On Monday, the social network announced it would let users share their encryption keys on their profiles to let others communicate with them securely — and would also send users who opt in emails in an encrypted format.

Cook also took the opportunity to attack companies like Google and Facebook at the EPIC awards dinner. “Our privacy is being attacked on multiple fronts,” he claimed. “I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetise it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.”

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