In China, for example, Apple — like any other foreign company
selling smartphones — hands over devices for import checks by
Chinese regulators. Apple also maintains server computers in
China, but Apple has previously said that Beijing cannot view the
data and that the keys to the servers are not stored in China. In
practice and according to Chinese law, Beijing typically has
access to any data stored in China.
If Apple accedes to American law enforcement demands for opening
the iPhone in the San Bernardino case and Beijing asks for a
similar tool, it is unlikely Apple would be able to control
China’s use of it. Yet if Apple were to refuse Beijing, it would
potentially face a battery of penalties.
Analysts said Chinese officials were pushing for greater control
over the encryption and security of computers and phones sold in
the country, though Beijing last year backed off on some proposals
that would have required foreign companies to provide encryption
keys for devices sold in the country after facing pressure from
foreign trade groups.
“People tend to forget the global impact of this,” said Raman Jit
Singh Chima, policy director at Access Now, a nonprofit that works
for Internet freedoms. “The reality is the damage done when a
democratic government does something like this is massive. It’s
even more negative in places where there are fewer freedoms.”
Another way to look at this is a choice between the lesser of two evils. Is it a bad thing if law enforcement loses access to the contents of cell phones as state of the art for security increases? Yes. But it would be far, far worse — for entirely different reasons — if we eliminate true security by mandating back doors.