Boston Globe, Opinion, 3/16/16

By Colin Angle and Paul Sagan

THE FUTURE of America’s high-tech industry is at stake in the FBI’s effort to force Apple to break open the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. If the FBI succeeds in forcing Apple to write, cryptographically sign, and deliver new software to undermine Apple’s own security features, American technology companies will suffer — and so will the Massachusetts economy.

The legal challenge, being argued in federal court on March 22, is sparking a public debate on digital security and personal privacy. This case is not a “ticking time bomb scenario.” Further, as law enforcement officials now acknowledge, a ruling against Apple would apply to more than just the phone in the San Bernardino investigation, or just to cases involving terrorism. Already, government agencies are seeking to unlock phones in Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The case also raises deep questions that cut to the core of American competitiveness. Making secure software is hard enough without explicitly installing back doors that would create a giant, blazing target for hackers, and cracking them would give bad guys unprecedented access to data and other personal information. The rest of the world would know these back doors existed, so why would anyone feel safe using a product with American software?

If the FBI gets its way, a ruling could create a legal precedent enabling law enforcement at every level to force US tech firms to write and install new code in an unimaginable array of personal devices from cars and household appliances to medical devices, and computers to TVs, creating gaping security holes in virtually every device connected to the Internet.

We recognize the serious threat we face from terrorism, but the argument that police need a way to peer into encrypted iPhones or else criminals and terrorists will be able to hide in plain sight, out of the reach of authorities, was debunked by a recent study at Harvard. As researchers from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society concluded, “ ‘going dark’ does not aptly describe the long-term landscape for government surveillance” capabilities.

As a business matter, forcing tech companies to write code to enable government spying would undermine trust in high-tech products made in America. If the FBI gets its way, the government could, in routine criminal investigations, force companies to deliver alternative code disguised as regular software updates. That would create a crisis of mistrust.

Law firms, banks, hospitals, and other corporations that today rely on auto updates and secure technology products to protect sensitive information would face the threat of crippling industrial espionage or security breaches. As a result, they would soon look outside the US for products they can trust.

The economic impact of such a precedent would be crippling. American tech companies generate hundreds of billions in revenue each year. The Department of Commerce estimates that there are more than 100,000 software and information technology companies in the United States. Some 2 million American workers take home paychecks from technology companies, and they have some of our nation’s best jobs.

The Massachusetts economy is uniquely dependent on technology industries. While Silicon Valley is home to some of the largest technology companies, Massachusetts boasts the largest tech workforce per capita.

The industry group CompTIA estimates that 1 in 10 Bay State workers is employed in the technology sector. These 286,000 tech jobs offer an average annual wage of $121,000. The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, in turn, finds that tech industry business and employee spending sustains another 400,000 workers statewide.

A ruling requiring Apple to subvert its own security would, at best, slow the growth of the American technology sector. Companies that require secure online transactions and data storage, as well as companies that develop innovative applications, would face a tremendous loss of consumer confidence and lost business opportunities as foreign firms step up to fill the demand for secure digital systems. That’s bad for business, and in our high-tech Bay State economy, it’s bad for Massachusetts.

Paul Sagan is an executive in residence at General Catalyst Partners, former CEO of Akamai Technologies and member of the Alliance.