Apple rejects Kenya push to unlock mystery iPhone


Apple CEO Tim Cook holds up the all-new iPhone 12 Pro during an Apple event at Apple Park in Cupertino, California on October 13, 2020. AFP PHOTO | BROOKS KRAFT | APPLE INC

US tech giant Apple rejected a request by the Kenyan government to unlock two iPhones that were the subject of police investigations in the six months to December.

The US Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) fillings of December 23 indicate that Apple received an appeal from Kenya seeking communication details on an iPhone that remained locked.

America’s market regulator did not disclose the type of information Kenya was seeking from the high-end phones or owners of the gadgets.

The rejection of Kenya’s request echoes Apple’s previous stand opposing demands by governments, including the US, to unlock an encrypted iPhones, arguing such a move would violate its free speech rights.

“Examples of such requests are where law enforcement agencies are working on behalf of customers who have requested assistance regarding lost or stolen devices,” said the SEC in a report that lists countries that sought access to blocked iPhones.

“Additionally, Apple regularly receives multi-device requests related to fraud investigations. Device-based requests generally seek details of customers associated with devices or device connections to Apple services.”

Most of these orders seek to compel Apple to extract data like contacts, photos and calls from locked iPhones to assist in criminal investigations and prosecutions.

A few requests, however, involve phones with more extensive security protections, which Apple has no current ability to break.

These orders would compel Apple to write new software that would let the government bypass these devices’ security and unlock the phones.

The tech giant reckons that writing a computer code would turn on an iPhone microphone to help surveillance.

In 2016, Apple Inc struck back in court against a US government demand that it unlock an encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters, who died in a shootout with police after killing14 people and injuring 22.

Apple declined. The clash drove to the heart of a long-running debate over how much law enforcement and intelligence officials should be able to monitor digital communications.

In Kenya, a government-backed Bill is seeking to amend the Official Secrets Act of 1968 to make it compulsory for anyone who owns a mobile phone or communication gadget to provide information on persons and data that the State is pursuing for national security breaches.

This will also include gadgets belonging to Kenyans that have been used in foreign countries to send information through channels like SMSs, emails and WhatsApp to the country.

Those in breach face a fine of Sh1 million if Parliament adopts the proposed law, which is under debate in the National Assembly.

Intelligence operatives are increasingly using secret surveillance programmes to spy on emails and social media activity, and collect data on telephone calls.

Crimes that are considered a threat to national security include smuggling of drugs and weapons like guns that are shipped in from neighbouring countries entangled in civil wars. The Bill comes two years after the State lost a bid to instal surveillance gadgets on mobile phones that would be used to spy on calls and messages.

The Kenyan courts, however, declared the move illegal, saying that it would amount to intrusion into people’s privacy, a decision that dealt a blow to the State’s bid to curb what it argued was a spike in cybercrime.

The Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), the industry regulator, had wanted Safaricom, Airtel and Telkom Kenya to instal a data management system (DMS), arguing it would help in detecting fake mobile devices.

The CA raised suspicions with its letter dated January 31, 2017 stating that the purpose of the DMS was to access information.

The three telecoms firms opposed the plan, saying it was a spyware whose purpose was to eavesdrop on people’s calls, read messages and also track their financial transactions.

Last year, the US flagged Kenya as a global hotspot for money laundering and a conduit of money used to fund terrorism due to insufficient legal controls.