Apple vs. the FBI is the big story no one’s talking about at Mobile World Congress – CNET

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Apple’s standoff with the FBI has gotten plenty of attention across the globe — including in San Francisco at this protest — but Mobile World Congress attendees have avoided the topic.

James Martin/CNET

There were plenty of executives eager to talk about all the new phones, drones and virtual reality gear introduced here at the Mobile World Congress trade show this week in Barcelona, Spain. But when it came to the biggest story in tech, no one wanted to go there.

In California, Apple is battling a court order from the US government to create a new version of its iOS mobile software that will unlock an iPhone 5C used by one of the terrorists in December’s San Bernardino massacre.

Apple says complying with the FBI’s request will create a backdoor into the iPhone and set “a dangerous precedent” that exposes all of its customers to security risks. The government says this is a one-time request (even though there’s a list of a dozen other iPhones it wants unlocked), and argues that getting information from the iPhone is a matter of national security.

CEO Tim Cook and his team have to respond to the order by Friday, and a hearing to discuss the standoff between Apple and the FBI is set for March 22 in federal court in Riverside, California.

The outcome of the battle may have ripple effects on the rest of the technology industry. If the US can force Apple, one of the most powerful companies in the world, to essentially make its own devices less secure, it could do the same to other businesses. The case also raises warning bells for consumers about the potential perils of connecting everything to the Internet at a time when companies are allowing everything from your refrigerator to your shoes to talk to the Web.

But the common response from tech executives at MWC, when asked about the standoff between Apple and the FBI, was uncomfortable laughter followed by some variation of, “No way am I saying anything about that.”

Glenn Lurie, CEO of AT&T’s consumer mobility business, didn’t want to touch the subject.

Check out CNET’s full cover of Apple’s standoff with the FBI.

“I can’t even fathom,” said Don Mesa, head of North American marketing for Sony Mobile.

IBM’s Katharyn White, who leads the company’s partnership with Apple to create iOS apps for enterprise customers, laughed and shook her head when asked repeated questions about the FBI and Apple’s stances. “We’re not commenting,” she said.

Finbarr Moynihan, general manager of global sales at chipmaker MediaTek, guffawed as he simply said, “Pass.”

BlackBerry, ZTE and several other mobile players also declined to comment.

Deep divide

There’s no clear victor in the court of public opinion. The Pew Research Center found about 51 percent of those surveyed believed Apple should comply with the court order, while 38 percent said it shouldn’t unlock the iPhone. A later Reuters poll found 46 percent of respondents agreed with Apple’s position and 35 percent disagreed.

Most Silicon Valley tech companies — at least those talking — have backed Apple and CEO Tim Cook. The CEOs of Facebook and its WhatsApp messaging app have voiced their support, as have the CEOs of Google and Twitter. The American Civil Liberties Union and the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation also support Apple’s position.

Many mobile executives at MWC gave noncommittal answers about how they feel about the issue, stressing how much they value security but not coming out and saying they support Apple.

Simon Segars, CEO of ARM, which designs the blueprints used by companies like Apple to make their processors, disputed reports from MWC that he’s siding with the FBI. He didn’t want to comment specifically about Apple’s case but said ARM puts a lot of emphasis on security in its products.

“Users should own their data, and users should be able to determine who gets access to it and who doesn’t,” Segars said.

Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf told CNBC that “in many respects, we don’t have a dog in the hunt.” But he did add that privacy is “very important” to his chipmaker, which counts Apple among its customers.

Samsung’s new head of mobile, DJ Koh, told The Wall Street Journal this week that “privacy was ‘the top of the top’ as far as priorities go.” A spokesman — who didn’t want to comment directly about the Apple case — added that Samsung assists law enforcement when required by the law, but it believes a legally mandated backdoor into a device would hurt customer trust.

Huawei’s vice president of external affairs, Bill Plummer, noted his company is also against a backdoor. The Chinese handset maker works within the legal environments of each local market to “balance safeguarding society and ensuring privacy,” Plummer said.

And Ramchan Woo, the man behind LG’s flagship G5 phone, which was unveiled at MWC, said the South Korean company “cannot make backdoors. It’s not the LG way.”

–Roger Cheng, Jessica Dolcourt and Lynn La contributed to this report.

Apple vs. the FBI is the big story no one’s talking about at Mobile World Congress – CNET