The Cable

Marco Rubio Sounds a Lot Like Hillary Clinton on Apple and Encryption

A court order compelling Apple to help the FBI unlock one of its phones has sparked a heated debate over privacy and national security.

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A court order compelling Apple to hack one of its own phones to provide data to the FBI has opened a split among the Republican presidential front-runners ahead of Saturday’s GOP primary in South Carolina and its crucial military vote.

The leading Republican candidates — businessman Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — have competed furiously for military votes in a state with strong cultural and economic ties to the U.S. armed forces. Cruz this week unveiled a plan to overhaul the U.S. military, Trump has made improving the treatment of veterans a consistent theme of his campaign, and Rubio has touted himself as the Republican field’s most experienced candidate on foreign policy.

The front-runners have mostly tried to outflank each other on the right, promising to destroy the Islamic State and boosting military spending. But on one of the top national security and privacy issues of the day — Tuesday’s court decision ordering Apple to help the FBI decrypt data on the iPhone 5c of one of the San Bernardino attackers — Rubio has shown a surprising degree of sympathy for the California tech giant. Apple is refusing to comply with the ruling and says the federal government is trying to force the company to insert a backdoor into its own products.

“I don’t have a magic solution for it today,” Rubio said during a CNN town hall Wednesday night. “If you create a backdoor, there is a very reasonable possibility that a criminal gang could figure out what the backdoor is.”

Still, he left himself some political wiggle room, adding: “On the flip-side of it, there might be valuable information on that phone from the San Bernardino killers that could lead us to preventing future crimes or future attacks.”

Trump and Cruz, by contrast, have firmly sided with the FBI in its showdown with Apple. “I think Apple is absolutely in the wrong,” Trump told MSNBC this week. At a rally on Friday, Trump called for a boycott of Apple until they comply with the FBI’s demand. “How do you like that?” he wondered aloud. “I just thought of that.”

After acknowledging the privacy concerns of undermining encryption, Cruz told CNN this week, “I think law enforcement has the better argument.”

“I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Cruz quipped, explaining that it should be possible to balance national security needs — in this case, accessing the communications of a terror suspect — and maintaining the privacy of other Apple users.

These positions mark a slight reversal of roles for the Florida and Texas senators. Rubio has viciously attacked Cruz during the primary campaign for the Texan’s votes limiting NSA surveillance programs. Now, Cruz is siding with the FBI in a dispute that civil libertarians argue has deep implications for the future of privacy, and the possibility of shielding private communications using encryption.

Discussing the issue this week, Rubio displayed a clear grasp of the facts in a highly technical dispute, and refused to come down on either side of the debate. In doing so, he bore a remarkable similarity to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s answer on the question. “What I keep calling for is to try to get the government and our great tech companies to figure out what is the path forward,” Clinton told MSNBC this week.

This was Rubio’s take on that line: “It will take a partnership between the technology industry and the government to confront and solve this.”

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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