On Feb. 16, a federal judge ordered Apple to build custom software that would enable the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to break into an iPhone 5c used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. Apple has refused and the result is a “complicated legal skirmish” (livescience.com).
The FBI has argued that the All Writs Act of 1789 (AWA) gives judges the authority to demand compliance with court orders and Apple’s counter was the right to freedom of speech, arguing that code is a form of speech. The legal battle between the two involves the FBI’s need to protect the U.S. from possible terrorist threats and Apple’s policy of protecting its consumers.
Apple has the right to refuse to create a modified operating system (OS) that could unlock any iPhone. In the wrong hands, this could be absolutely detrimental. In a customer letter published on the Apple website, Tim Cook, Chief Executive Officer, wrote about the legal issue and its implications.
“Customers expect Apple and other technology companies to do everything in our power to protect their personal information, and at Apple we are deeply committed to safeguarding their data,” Cook wrote.
He also explained that Apple has complied with subpoenas and warrants and have even offered the advice/assistance of its engineers to the FBI. The FBI, however, wants Apple to create something that is nonexistent today. “But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create,” he said. “They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”
Such a backdoor would jeopardize the security of almost 94 million iPhone users in the U.S. (according to a CNET study in 2015). iPhones hold an unbelievable amount of information and data, ranging from private conversations to photos to financial information. Apple’s refusal to comply protects the privacy and safety of iPhone users.
Legally, the U.S. government only has the right to demand programs or tangible things that already exist. While Apple has the means to create an OS that would act like a master key in its ability to unlock all iPhones, the software currently does not exist.
The case is predicted to set precedent. An FBI win would threaten the private information of all iPhone users and undo the past several years of progress tech companies have made on encryption and user protection.