In a highly publicized incident that (at the time) seemed to divide the country on a number of public issues, Syed Rizwan Farook entered a holiday party last December and opened fire, killing fourteen and wounding 21 others; he and his wife (who is also suspected of being part of the plot) were later killed by police in a shootout. The crime has left shockwaves due to so many unanswered questions: was it racially or religiously motivated? was it just another case of disgruntled workplace violence? do we need stronger gun control laws?
Unfortunately, investigators believe the answers to at least some of the key questions are locked up in the Farook’s iPhone. FBI experts have been unable to bypass the phone’s passcode, and gave up after ten failed attempts out of fear of permanently disabling the phone. Their request directly from Apple to assist in opening the phone was unsuccessful; as the manufacturer has stated in the past, Apple has no access to a user’s passcode and therefore has no ability to unlock a phone, even if it was willing to do so.
Now, a federal judge is compelling Apple to not only unlock the phone for investigators, but to develop new technology and software to make that possible. Apple, who had no hand in the crime whatsoever, is being ordered by Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the Federal District Court for the District of Central California to put their engineers on the problem and produce the ability to bypass a passcode lock at their own expense.
Apple has obviously refused, and no, it’s not because they support the killing of US citizens. In the company’s own words, there’s a reason this technology doesn’t exist and it’s not because Apple didn’t think of it: creating the software the judge wants would amount to building a backdoor into every Apple device. That’s something the company isn’t willing to do, not just to thwart the efforts of law enforcement, but because the existence of such a backdoor leaves every Apple user’s phone vulnerable to hackers.
“The F.B.I. 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 back door,” Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in a statement, refusing to comply with the judge’s order. “And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”
That last part is the real crux of the problem. Yes, hacking is a major threat. But in Apple’s view, building an inherent workaround allows the government to access citizens’ devices whenever they see fit. The US Supreme Court has already ruled that smartphones contain as much personal and incriminating information as an individual’s home. Following in the still-unresolved aftermath of the Edward Snowden government spying crisis, handing over more keys to citizens’ private data is unacceptable.