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Google CEO Sundar Pichai Says Government Request for Apple Back Door Could Set 'Troubling Precedent'

Pichai tweets that he looks forward to a "thoughtful and open discussion" on the issue.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

After hours of anticipation, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has finally weighed in on the biggest issue of the day in tech: The judicial order for Apple to enable the FBI to hack into the iPhone of the San Bernardino gunman. In a series of tweets on Wednesday afternoon, Pichai offered a defense of Apple CEO Tim Cook, who described the request as dangerous and unprecedented.

Pichai tweeted that the request “could be a troubling precedent” and stressed that action could “compromise users’ privacy” — but he did not state what Google would do if it were the subject of the judicial order rather than Apple.

On Tuesday, a U.S. judge ordered Apple to help crack open the iPhone of the shooter in the San Bernardino, Calif., terror attack. Late Tuesday night, Apple CEO Tim Cook posted a forceful rebuttal to that request, winning the accolades of civil liberties advocates.

As Cook’s note made the rounds, several prominent figures, including NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, called on Google CEO Sundar Pichai to make a similar statement, as Google controls Android, the other dominant mobile operating system.

Handing data to governments is a thornier issue for Google, in part because the search engine has access to so many more consumer data channels than Apple. That could explain why Pichai’s tweets, while endorsing Apple’s position, were softer than Cook’s pointed response letter.

However, Google has stressed privacy far more recently, largely as a defense. In the past year, Cook has repeatedly cited Google (both implicitly and outright) as a counterexample to Apple on the issue of consumer privacy. Google CEO Eric Schmidt publicly objected to that characterization, and Google has more frequently touted its security credentials.

In an October speech, Schmidt said that Google “doesn’t know how” to build a safe back door, a way to access encrypted data solely for government use — what, in essence, the judicial request to Apple is. In one of Google’s few public comments on the issue, former policy and communications director Rachel Whetstone emphatically stated that the U.S. government “does not have back door access to Google.”

Yet Whetstone also acknowledged that Google does cooperate with government data requests, particularly around terrorism-related content. YouTube, she noted, has removed 14 million videos for breaking its policies on objectionable content.

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