Microsoft Moves To Back Apple in iPhone Decryption Fight

Microsoft's chief legal officer told Congress on Thursday that Microsoft "wholeheartedly" backs Apple's refusal to cooperate with government demands to decrypt an iPhone used by the perpetrators of last December's mass shooting attack in San Bernardino, Calif.

Microsoft President Brad Smith appeared before a U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing investigating the contentious legal battle between the FBI and Apple. The dispute stems from Apple's failure to comply with a California federal district court order issued last week that would have required Apple to cooperate with the FBI's request for a "backdoored" version of iOS to be installed on the iPhone in question. Apple CEO Tim Cook said his company would not cooperate with the FBI's demands.

The showdown between Apple and the FBI has pitted civil liberties proponents against those who believe Apple and the IT community have a duty to cooperate with law enforcement in the interest of national security.

In his testimony to Congress, Smith said Microsoft intends to file an amicus brief supporting Apple's refusal to cooperate with the FBI. Smith also backed Cook's proposal that Congress form a commission to investigate the issue, pointing out that the current laws are antiquated.

"We do not believe that courts should seek to resolve issues of 21st-century technology with a law that was written in the era of the adding machine," Smith said in response to a question from Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.

"We need 21st-century laws that address 21st-century technology issues," Smith continued. "And we need these laws to be written by Congress. We, therefore, agree wholeheartedly with Apple that the right place to bring this discussion is here, to the House of Representatives and the Senate, so the people who are elected by the people can make these decisions."

A transcript and video of Smith's response to Lofgren's question is available here.

In his prepared remarks, Smith pointed to the overall need to "update outdated privacy laws," including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a digital privacy law that passed three decades ago. To illustrate the changes in technology since then, Smith showed an IBM laptop with a monochrome display and a floppy disk, which was considered a modern system at the time, next to a new Surface Pro.

"When the U.S. House of Representatives passed that bill by voice vote on June 23, 1986, Ronald Reagan was president, Tip O'Neill was speaker of the house, and Mark Zuckerberg was 2 years old," he said. "Obviously, technology has come a long way in the last 30 years."

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.