In a battle between the federal government and one of America’s largest and most-loved companies, the stakes just got higher.
Apple Inc. on Tuesday announced it would fight a federal court order to help the FBI crack an iPhone belonging to San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook. Investigators have been hampered by Apple’s strict security and encryption standards, which will cause all of the phone’s data to be erased if the wrong password is entered too many times.
The court order, issued Tuesday, would require Apple to create a “backdoor” to iPhone software that would allow investigators to access the information. “Once the security is crippled, agents would be able to guess as many combinations as possible,” wrote Natalie DiBlasio and Elizabeth Weise in USA Today.
In effect, the FBI wants Apple to write a separate version of iPhone software that does not include the automatic-erase security feature. Apple is refusing, citing security concerns.
“We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country,” Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in an open letter to customers. “We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.”
“In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession,” wrote Cook.
Cook also disputed the FBI’s assurance that its request would be limited only to Farook’s phone. “Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices,” wrote Cook. “In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes.”
This order from the government should cause significant alarm, even for those who don’t own Apple products. When the government forces companies to jeopardize user security, a dangerous precedent is set. It puts consumers’ data in the hands of federal bureaucrats and politicians, groups barely trusted by Americans.
Importantly, the request is not even coming through Congress. If democratically elected representatives passed a law imposing this requirement on companies, it would be a different debate. But the FBI is using a 200-year-old law called the All Writs Act of 1789 to expand its authority by citing the law’s power to compel third parties to aid an investigation.
Apple’s letter has been very well-received by consumers, journalists, and tech experts. Hopefully Apple’s transparent, honest plea will encourage the federal government to reconsider their plan. The millions of Americans with private data on their iPhones would certainly be grateful.