How Apple’s Stand Against the UK’s Snooper’s Charter Could Change the Future of Encryption

How Apple’s Stand Against the UK’s Snooper’s Charter Could Change the Future of Encryption

Apple has made it clear that it values the privacy and security of its users above all else. The company has repeatedly refused to create backdoors or weaken the encryption of its products and services, even when faced with legal pressure or national security demands. But now, Apple is facing a new challenge in the UK, where the government is proposing to update the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, also known as the Snooper’s Charter, which would give the authorities unprecedented access to communications data and force tech companies to comply with their requests.

The Snooper’s Charter is a controversial law that was passed in 2016, after years of debate and scrutiny. It comprehensively sets out and expands the electronic surveillance powers of the British intelligence agencies and police, and claims to improve the safeguards on the exercise of those powers1 Some of the provisions in the law include:

  • Requiring web and phone companies to store everyone’s web browsing histories for 12 months and give the police, security services and official agencies access to them.
  • Giving the security services and police new powers to hack into computers and phones and to collect communications data in bulk.
  • Requiring judges to sign off police requests to view journalists’ call and web records, but allowing the authorities to bypass this process in urgent cases.
  • Requiring tech companies to inform the Home Office of any changes to product security features before they are released, and to make security changes requested by the Home Office without telling users.
  • Requiring non-UK-based companies to comply with changes that would affect their product globally.

The UK government argues that these powers are necessary and proportionate to combat terrorism, serious crime and other threats in the digital age. It also claims that the law provides unprecedented transparency and substantial privacy protection, and that it is subject to strict oversight and judicial review2

However, many privacy campaigners, human rights groups, tech companies and civil society organisations have criticised the law as being one of the most extreme surveillance laws ever passed in a democracy3 They argue that the law violates fundamental rights, undermines trust in technology, creates security risks, and sets a dangerous precedent for other countries. Some of the main criticisms include:

Apple is one of the most vocal opponents of the Snooper’s Charter, and has submitted a nine-page-long document condemning many of the proposed changes6 The company says that it will not make changes to security features specifically for one country that would weaken a product for all users, suggesting that services like FaceTime and iMessage will simply be removed in the UK if the amendments proceed7

FaceTime and iMessage are two of Apple’s most popular features, which allow users to make video calls and send messages over an encrypted end-to-end connection. This means that only the sender and receiver can access the content of their communications, and not even Apple or any third party can decrypt or intercept them. Apple says that this provides a strong level of privacy and security for its users, especially in countries where freedom of expression is under threat or where governments have a history of abusing surveillance powers.

Apple has also defended its encryption stance in other cases around the world, such as in the US, where it refused to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack8 Apple argued that creating a backdoor for one device would compromise the security of millions of other devices, and that complying with such requests would set a dangerous precedent for future demands by governments or criminals.

Apple’s stand against the UK’s Snooper’s Charter could have significant implications for the future of encryption and digital rights around the world. On one hand, it could inspire other tech companies and users to resist government pressure and demand stronger privacy and security protections. On the other hand, it could provoke a backlash from the authorities and lead to more legal battles, bans or sanctions. It could also influence the outcome of the ongoing debate on encryption and surveillance in the EU, where the European Commission is considering new legislation that could affect the use of end-to-end encryption by tech companies and users.

The UK government is currently conducting an eight-week consultation process on the proposed amendments to the Snooper’s Charter, open to professional bodies, interest groups, academia, and the wider public. The final version of the law is expected to be voted on by Parliament later this year. Whether Apple will follow through with its threat to pull FaceTime and iMessage from the UK, and how the UK public will react to such a move, remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: the debate on encryption and surveillance is far from over, and the stakes are high for everyone involved.


1: Investigatory Powers Act 2016 - Wikipedia 2: Home Secretary welcomes Royal Assent of Investigatory Powers Bill - GOV.UK 3: ‘Snooper’s charter’ bill becomes law, extending UK state surveillance | Surveillance | The Guardian 4: UK mass digital surveillance regime ruled unlawful | Privacy International 5: UK mass interception law violates human rights - European court | Privacy International 6: Apple’s response to Investigatory Powers Bill - BBC News 7: Apple Threatens to Pull FaceTime and iMessage in the UK Over Proposed Surveillance Law Changes - MacRumors 8: Apple-FBI fight over iPhone encryption explained - BBC News : EU considers ban on end-to-end encryption | TechRadar : Investigatory Powers Act 2016: consultation on codes of practice - GOV.UK