MARCH 4, 2016 BY ADAM SEGAL
Even if the U.S. government abandons its insistence on a backdoored iPhone, Beijing may not.
Shadowing the standoff between the FBI and Apple over access to an encrypted iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers is the question: What will China do? If Apple creates unique software that allows Washington access to the phone, does that open the door for Beijing to make similar demands on the company and all other foreign technology firms operatin in China? As Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon argued, “This move by the FBI could snowball around the world. Why in the world would our government want to give repressive regimes in Russia and China a blueprint for forcing American companies to create a backdoor?”
Certainly, China watches U.S.statements and policy very closely. An early draft of China’s counterterrorism law included provisions requiring the installation of backdoors and the reporting of encryption keys. In the face of criticism from the US government and foreign technology companies, Fu Ying, spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress, defended the provisions as in accordance with “international common practices,” adding that it was common for the Western countries, such as the United States and Britain, to request tech firms to disclose encryption methods. The final law, passed in December 2015, was much more ambiguous about what type of demands the government would make on technology companies, but it is clear that Chinese leaders are more than happy to exploit what is happening in the United States as rhetorical cover.
Yet we should be clear that what happens in the United States will have very little impact on what China ultimately decides to do. Beijing, like governments everywhere, wants to collect and analyze data for law enforcement and national intelligence reasons. The desire for data may only intensify under Xi Jinping’s leadership; the Chinese Communist Party appears increasingly worried about domestic stability and the spread of information within the country’s borders. For foreign companies, refusal to cooperate with the Chinese authorities will increasingly lead to a loss of market opportunities.
Faced with competing pressures across the many jurisdictions that they operate in, there are no easy options for the companies. Any resolution will be political, not technical. The ideal outcome is a multilateral agreement that embraces privacy and the strongest encryption possible, but also allows government access to data for legitimate purposes.