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MWC16: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg voices support for Apple over FBI probe

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Mobile World Congress he sympathised with Apple's battle with the FBI over unlocking a terrorist’s iPhone

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In a keynote interview at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke of his sympathy for Apple after a US federal judge ordered it to unlock an iPhone used by the San Bernardino gunman, Syed Rizwan Farook.

Alongside his wife Tashfeen Malik, Farook killed 14 people in a mass shooting in December 2015, after the pair pledged their allegiance to so-called Islamic State online.

The judge ordered Apple to build a custom firmware file to let the FBI bypass the function that automatically erases all data on an iPhone after a number of failed passcode entries, crack its passcode and decrypt the data held on Farook’s device.

Questioned on his own feelings regarding the controversy, Zuckerberg said: “I don't think that requiring back doors to encryption is either going to be an effective thing to increase security or is really the right thing to do. We are pretty sympathetic to Tim Cook and Apple.”

While he was generally sympathetic, he added, he believed Facebook had a responsibility to co-operate with the authorities if needed in terror-related cases. He would not be drawn on what he would have done in the same situation.

A number of other technology companies – including Twitter and WhatsApp – had already sided with Apple over the demands.

In an official statement issued on 19 February 2016, Facebook said: “Those who seek to praise, promote or plan terrorist acts have no place on our services. However, we will continue to fight aggressively against requirements for companies to weaken the security of their systems.

“These demands would create a chilling precedent and obstruct companies’ efforts to secure their products.”

In a wide-ranging interview session, Zuckerberg touched on a range of subjects, and said it was still unacceptable that four billion people could not access basic internet services. Mobile networks, he said, would have a big role to play here.

However, he added, he was “disappointed” that much of the talk around 5G had focused on connecting things – as opposed to people – and urged the audience to reframe their 5G conversations around the benefits of mobile connectivity to society as a whole, and not just on machine-to-machine (M2M) and internet of things (IoT) use cases.

Dystopian future

Zuckerberg also discussed one of the key themes emerging at Mobile World Congress this year, the predicted take-up of virtual reality (VR).

He linked the rise of VR – which has been around since the 1990s but has never really taken off as its advocates hoped – to wider trends around sharing content in the social media world. He predicted VR would change the way consumers shared their lives online. VR will also, he added, be a “killer app” for 5G.

Zuckerberg had already been the centre of an internet meme on the Sunday preceding the show when a photo – depicting him at a Samsung event next to a crowd of technology journalists wearing VR headsets, entirely oblivious to his presence – went viral.

Some commenters took the photo as a sign of a disconnected, dystopian technological future. One Tweeter remarked: “Oh, wait. I remember this episode of Doctor Who.”

Asked whether or not his baby daughter, Maxima, would be signing up for a Facebook account any time soon, Zuckerberg said he would not be “much of a role model” if he allowed his own offspring to bypass Facebook’s age rule barring under-13s.

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