When news first broke that the FBI wanted Apple to build an insecure version of iOS to help the agency access the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, I wrote that Apple needed to be careful to avoid the government’s clever public relations trap. It seemed that law enforcement officials wanted to use a high-profile act of terrorism as a way to create political pressure on Apple to comply with its demands and set a precedent for future cases. While I believed Apple was right to resist such demands, I also thought there was a chance this could backfire since no one wants to be seen as impeding an investigation that could prevent future terrorist attacks.
However, Apple stared down the FBI and won this fight for the best possible reason: It had the facts on its side.
From the start, I was skeptical that the FBI had really exhausted all avenues for unlocking Farook’s iPhone 5c. After all, the FBI wasn’t even asking Apple to break encryption on the device or anything nearly as complicated. Rather, it was just looking for a way to bypass the security protocol that would have erased all of the device’s data after more than 10 incorrect passcode entries.
Given all the things that the NSA has proven itself capable of, I couldn’t believe that none of its hackers could figure out how to crack a three-year-old iPhone. It seems, however, that the NSA doesn’t like to share what it actually knows even if it’s sharing this knowledge with other government agencies.
Even without the NSA’s help, I still thought that some company out there in the private sector would have the know-how to help the FBI bypass the device’s security protocols. And sure enough, it looks like Israeli company Celebrite has stepped up to the plate with a solution to help the FBI that doesn’t involve forcing Apple to make an insecure version of its own software.
While I’m sympathetic to the need to gather as much intelligence as possible while investigating terrorist attacks, the precedent that the government was trying to set in this case was truly dangerous. If it had succeeded in using the All Writs Act as a justification to force Apple to design a “GovtOS,” it could have done the same thing to other companies and pretty soon there would be compromised versions of every operating system out there.
All that said, I tend to agree with Mark Cuban that this case shows that Congress needs to step up to the plate pass laws that offer specific guidelines for what law enforcement officials can and cannot ask tech companies to do to help with terror investigations. Given how badly our legislators have been at doing their jobs lately, however, it’s unlikely we’ll see anything like that occur.