Skip to Content

Why Google Trailing Apple on Encryption Support Is a Human Rights Issue

A leading privacy activist says Google’s lack of support for strong encryption makes second-class citizens out of people who can’t afford Apple devices.
November 3, 2015

A new iPhone without a cellular contract costs at least $650, while a new smartphone powered by Google’s Android software can be as little as $50.

Chris Soghoian
Chris Soghoian

According to the ACLU’s principal technologist, Chris Soghoian, another gulf between the two is that Apple devices also better protect people’s data against criminals and surveillance. At MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, he warned that the combination of those differences has created a looming civil rights problem.

“We now find ourselves in not just a digital divide but a digital security divide,” he said. “The phone used by the rich is encrypted by default and cannot be surveilled, and the phone used by most people in the global south and the poor and disadvantaged in America can be surveilled.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook recently spoke about his commitment to privacy and criticized companies who are “gobbling up” personal data to make money from it. His company won plaudits from experts last year—and enraged the FBI—after making its mobile devices automatically encrypt data stored on a device in such a way that even Apple can’t unlock it.

Apple has also designed its messaging and video chat apps to use end-to-end encryption, which means that the company can’t read past communications (unless someone has enabled Apple’s iCloud backup service). And it has resisted U.S. Department of Justice demands to modify its system to wiretap messages in real time.

People using phones powered by Google’s Android software are not so well protected, said Soghoian. The company said last year that it would make Android phones encrypt all stored data by default, like Apple devices do, but reversed that decision early this year. Google said this month it will require only devices meeting certain hardware performance standards to encrypt stored data, which Soghoian thinks will exclude cheaper devices. Google’s Hangouts text and video chat service bundled with Android does not use end-to-end encryption.

Soghoian said this means that someone who uses a cheap Android device is a much easier target for law enforcement or intelligence agencies—which he argues are prone to abusing their surveillance powers. He cited the way the FBI snooped on Martin Luther King’s phone calls and said he fears that U.S. and overseas activists of today and tomorrow will be even easier targets. “The next civil rights movement will use the technology against which surveillance works best,” he said. Protest movements don’t typically start in society’s upper socioeconomic echelons, he noted.

The difference between Apple and Google’s stances on encryption for mobile devices appears to be due to corporate rather than technical reasons, said Soghoian. “Google has by far the best security team of any company in Silicon Valley, and the security people I know at Google are embarrassed by Android,” he said. “But Apple sells luxury goods and Google gives away services for free in return for access to data.”

Highly secure communications apps are available for both Apple and Google platforms, and some are very popular. Soghoian, like Edward Snowden, recommends a messaging app called Signal, which is supported by the U.S. State Department with a view to help protect civil liberties overseas. The same underlying technology is used by Facebook’s app WhatsApp to protect messages using end-to-end encryption.

But most mobile e-mail apps, including Apple and Google’s defaults, don’t support encrypted messages. And data entered into Facebook, the most popular mobile app of all, or its Messenger app, resides on Facebook’s servers in a form that can be read by authorities if they request it.

Soghoian said he hopes drawing attention to the differences between how Apple, Google, and Facebook have designed their software will cause those he sees as laggards to do more. “My hope is that by talking about this we can shake these companies up.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other
conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other

Forget dating apps: Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love

Fed up with apps, people looking for romance are finding inspiration on Twitter, TikTok—and even email newsletters.

computation concept
computation concept

How AI is reinventing what computers are

Three key ways artificial intelligence is changing what it means to compute.

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

We reviewed three at-home covid tests. The results were mixed.

Over-the-counter coronavirus tests are finally available in the US. Some are more accurate and easier to use than others.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.