Apple is currently refusing to unlock an iPhone 5c previously owned by one of the San Bernardino shooters, and many voices are coming out for and against them in this complicated issue.
If you haven’t been following the case, here is a brief summary of the events that have transpired so far:
1. Before the court order to Apple, the FBI asked San Bernardino County to change the iCloud password on the phone in question. Since the phone was owned by the county, they had this capability. The county complied. As a result of this, it is no longer possible to extract a backup of the phone and retrieve that data.
2. A federal judge ordered Apple, according to the All-Writs Act of 1789, to help the FBI gain access to the phone. The order asked Apple to write a new version of iOS, iPhone’s operating system, to do the following: Disable the iPhone’s ability to wipe itself after ten incorrect password attempts, allow passwords to be submitted to the phone electronically and remotely, and eliminate the artificial delay between password attempts.
3. Apple refused to comply with this order, publicly announcing its intent to do so in “A Message to Our Customers” written by CEO Tim Cook and posted on Apple’s website. (apple.com/customer-letter) The letter stated that the order violated its consumers’ right to privacy, and this case would set a dangerous precedent.
4. After much debate and discussion in the media, Apple released a follow-up FAQ about why they are fighting the order, and what’s at stake.
5. As the appeal process continues, Apple has announced its intent to argue that the FBI’s order is a violation of free speech.
Many people have been siding with the FBI in this battle, and honestly, it’s not hard to see why. At the most basic level, it appears Apple is refusing to help the FBI access the iPhone of a terrorist.
However, I’m of the opinion that the particular wording of this request, as well as what would be required to fulfill it, means this case is much larger than this one particular iPhone.
First, let’s look at the FBI’s order. It is important to note here that the order is not for Apple to unlock the iPhone in question. The order is forcing Apple to build a tool that will allow the FBI to unlock the phone.
Essentially, this boils down to the FBI telling Apple “Your encryption is too strong on this phone. Make the encryption weaker, so we can hack into it.”
There are two aspects of this that are worth bringing up. First, the FBI is directly asking Apple to reduce encryption. In a world where our phones and computers have more personal data than ever before including banking information, medical records, and personal photos, this is a worrying factor.
Second, the FBI is not asking Apple to hand over some code it has. They’re asking Apple to write new code that allows them to crack the weaker encryption.
This is the main point of Apple’s argument against the FBI. Apple’s position is that the government cannot force them to write new code, as code has legal precedent of being upheld as free speech, so the FBI would be compelling speech. This, in Apple’s view, violates their first-amendment rights.
But, as many people have said, the reason this case is important is not that this one particular iPhone will be unlocked.
Since Apple is making a case against the FBI, whatever the outcome of the case will be, it will set a legal precedent.
If Apple wins, that precedent will be that the government cannot force companies to write code for them. If Apple loses, the precedent will instead be that law enforcement can request Apple (or any other manufacturer) to weaken the encryption on any phone, even if that is not currently possible with the tools available.
Apple has already reported that law enforcement across the country has “hundreds” of phones they want Apple to unlock if the FBI wins this case.
It’s bigger than one iPhone.