On Tuesday night, a California court ordered Apple to help the FBI unlock the iPhone that belonged to the San Bernadino shooters, a project the agency has so far been unable to crack. This is an unprecedented demand, and the tech giant isn’t having it.
Apple CEO Tim Cook quickly fired off a letter detailing the company’s plan to fight the government’s mandate:
We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.
Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.
The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.
The exact nature of the FBI’s request here is not quite identical to the broader encryption debate of recent months. That is to say, the demand in this particular case is not for the “backdoor” many federal agencies want to have so they can skirt security measures when investigating or spying on someone.
Instead, it’s about overriding the iPhone’s default setting of wiping all personal data after 10 consecutive failed login attempts. “That Apple is just as blind to your photos and texts as the FBI also helps explain the unique nature of the court request,” Ryan Derballa explains at Wired. “Rather than impel Apple to unlock the phone, the FBI wants Apple to help it develop a way to ‘bruteforce’ the password—guess until it finds a match—without triggering a mechanism that deletes the key that decrypts the data.”
Nevertheless, the stakes are high enough to be plenty worrisome for civil liberties advocates, as well as for Apple’s status as a business its customers can trust to keep their data safe.
“What the FBI wants here is more like a golden key that would allow access to private data decoding encrypted material,” says Nathan Leamer, a policy analyst at the R Street Institute. “Yet make no mistake, this situation gets at the heart of the concern over the need for strong encryption and data protection.”
As Cook concludes, the government is attempting to force Apple to “hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers—including tens of millions of American citizens—from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals.”
Despite the FBI’s claims of the best intentions, there’s no way this workaround would only be used on one iPhone. Once the government gets its foot in the door on encryption, it will pry it all the way open until each and every one of us is vulnerable to criminal activity and federal surveillance alike.
And contrary to the way the feds have framed this issue, giving the government what it wants will actually cripple criminal investigations.
In fact, as Matt Mayer writes at the American Enterprise Institute, if anti-privacy forces succeed, “terrorists will only use the technologies and applications of foreign companies. Encryption won’t leave law enforcement in the dark; their lack of subpoena power over those foreign companies will.”
Furthermore, asks Leamer, “if the FBI or other law enforcement gain access, what is to keep other government agencies, foreign governments or hackers from accessing our data?”
“It’s not just your iPhone,” he adds, “it’s your Amazon purchases, online banking, and confidential communication that will become vulnerable.”
Whether Apple can win its fight remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, civil libertarians of every stripe should be happy to have a titan of industry with us on this one. In Leamer’s words, encryption is “an essential safeguard for an individual to protect themselves from government overreach” online and a necessary defense against a brave new world of cyber-crime.