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Apple vs. FBI is the big story no one's touching at Mobile World Congress

The annual show in Barcelona draws industry execs who want to discuss anything besides the legal battle playing out in California.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
4 min read

Plenty of executives will line up to talk about the new phones, drones and VR gear introduced at this week's Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona. But when it comes to the biggest story in tech, no one wants to go there.

In California, Apple is battling a February 16 federal court order to create a new version of its iOS mobile software that will unlock an iPhone 5C used by a terrorist in December's San Bernardino massacre.

Apple says complying with the FBI's request will create a backdoor into the iPhone and set a "dangerous precedent" that exposes all its customers to security risks. The government says this is a one-time request (even though there is a list of a dozen other iPhones it wants unlocked) and argues that getting information from the iPhone is a matter of national security.

Apple CEO Tim Cook and his team must respond to the order by Friday. A hearing to discuss the standoff between Apple and the FBI is set for March 22 in federal court in Riverside, California.

Watch this: Apple vs. the FBI: An easy explanation

The outcome of the battle may have ripple effects on the rest of the technology industry. If the US can force one of the most powerful companies in the world to essentially make its own devices less secure, the government could do the same to other businesses. The case also raises warning bells for consumers about the potential perils of connecting everything to the Internet at a time when companies are enabling a huge range of items -- from your refrigerator to your shoes -- to talk to the Web.

Check out CNET's full coverage of Apple vs. FBI

But when asked about the standoff between Apple and the FBI, the common response of tech execs here at MWC was uncomfortable laughter followed by some variation of: "No way am I saying anything."

Glenn Lurie, CEO of AT&T's consumer mobility business, wouldn't touch the subject.

Don Mesa, head of North American marketing for Sony Mobile, said simply: "I can't even fathom."

Katharyn White, who leads IBM's partnership with Apple to create iOS apps for enterprise customers, laughed and shook her head when asked repeated questions about the FBI's and Apple's stances. "We're not commenting," she said.

Finbarr Moynihan, general manager of global sales at chipmaker MediaTek, guffawed and said, "Pass."

Executives from BlackBerry, ZTE and several other mobile players also declined to comment.

Deep divide

There's no clear victor in the court of public opinion. The Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of those surveyed believe Apple should comply with the court order, while 38 percent said the company shouldn't unlock the iPhone. A later Reuters poll found 46 percent of respondents agreed with Apple's position and 35 percent disagreed.

Many Silicon Valley tech companies -- at least those talking -- have backed Apple and Cook. The CEOs of Facebook and its WhatsApp messaging app have voiced their support, as have the CEOs of Google and Twitter. The American Civil Liberties Union and digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation also support Apple's position.

Many mobile executives at MWC gave noncommittal answers about their feelings on the issue, stressing how much they value security but not coming out and saying they support Apple.

Simon Segars, CEO of ARM, which designs the blueprints used by companies like Apple to make their processors, disputed reports from MWC that he's siding with the FBI. He didn't want to comment specifically about Apple's case but said ARM puts a lot of emphasis on security in its products.

"Users should own their data, and users should be able to determine who gets access to it and who doesn't," Segars said.

Executives from Sikur, the Brazilian company that sells its own encrypted GranitePhone to companies and government organizations, said the outcome will be felt throughout the industry. "Everybody would be forced to do the same [as Apple]," said Alexandre Vasconcelos, a presales manager with the company.

"If you are concerned about your own privacy and security you should ask yourself would you be comfortable having a device that someone else can crack? I would not," said Vasconcelos. "I do not have so private information, but ... I won't be comfortable with even not so important information being captured by any government or bad guy."

Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf told CNBC that "in many respects, we don't have a dog in the hunt." But he did add that privacy is "very important" to his chipmaking company, which counts Apple among its customers.

DJ Koh, Samsung's new head of mobile, told The Wall Street Journal this week that "privacy was 'the top of the top' as far as priorities go." A spokesman, who didn't want to comment directly about the Apple case, added that Samsung assists law enforcement when required by the law but believes a legally mandated backdoor into a device would hurt customer trust.

Huawei's vice president of external affairs, Bill Plummer, noted that his company is against a backdoor. The Chinese handset maker works within the legal environments of each local market to "balance safeguarding society and ensuring privacy," Plummer said.

And Ramchan Woo, the man behind LG's flagship G5 phone, which was unveiled at MWC, said the South Korean company "cannot make backdoors. It's not the LG way."

--Roger Cheng, Jessica Dolcourt, Lynn La and Richard Trenholm contributed to this report.