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Why tech companies were reluctant to back Apple in its fight with the FBI

Apple FBI iPhone Encryption Tech

Apple scored a win against the FBI at a congressional hearing earlier this week, but the encryption battle over an iPhone that had belonged to the San Bernardino shooting is far from over. The FBI is still interested in getting access to the phone with help of special iOS software that Apple likens to a backdoor. Apple is strongly opposing the Bureau in this high-profile case, even though public opinion might be on the FBI’s side.

Tech companies including rivals and partners have supported Apple’s decision to fight the FBI, but they were not all quick to offer their support — nor were they convinced this is a battle worth entering on the wrong side.

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Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Snapchat and Yahoo are the tech companies expected to file amicus briefs in the case, according to The New York Times. In total, 40 companies and organizations should file court briefs on Thursday, with Apple having already listed the amicus briefs received so far in a short announcement on its press page.

When it comes to tech companies, their support wasn’t immediate, the Times says. Internally, there was a lot of talk about the implications of the Apple vs. FBI fight and what it may mean for the entire tech sector if Apple loses.

Though not named in the Times’ article, several “feared the showdown with the government was too risky and could have far-reaching implications.” Executives at tech companies told the Times they privately worried about Apple’s stance, and what the aftermath of the duel might bring. Though private, these views are shared among others in Silicon Valley, in spite of what they say publicly.

Critics believe that Apple could have quietly complied with the FBI, unlocked the iPhone, and then fought the encryption battle in a case that’s not as charged as this particular crime. Apple disagrees with that stance, explaining that once created, the software can’t be erased.

“In my view, this is the wrong case to fight,” Khosla Ventures’ Keith Rabois said. “There are plenty of other cases with a lot less sympathetic case for the government.” He did say that he does believe strongly in privacy and encryption and “all the normal Sillicon Valley views.”

Tech companies worry not only about the implications of this legal confrontations, but also about what it’ll mean for their existing relationship with the government and how the public will perceive their involvement in support of Apple. Others also said that Apple’s strong defense of encryption could lead to congressional efforts to reshape the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in ways that would not favor the tech sector in the future.

Meanwhile, Apple’s general counsel Bruce Sewell said the company received plenty of support so far.

“We are humbled by the outpouring of support we’ve received from our customers, our colleagues in business, nonprofit organizations, the security community and many others,” Sewell said. “The groups filing briefs with the court understand, as more and more people have come to realize, that this case is not about one phone — it is about the future and how we protect our safety and our privacy.”

At the time of this writing, no major tech companies filed their amicus briefs with the court. Apple lists just six such documents, from Access Now and Wickr Foundation, ACT/The App Association, American Civil Liberties Union, David Kaye (two documents), Salihin Kondoker (the husband of one of victims of the San Bernardino shootings) – read about them at this link.

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he closely follows the events in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises. Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.