Apple vs. The FBI – What’s At Stake?

Apple and the FBI spent more than five hours on Monday testifying before Congress over the ongoing San Bernadino terrorist iPhone saga. While there weren’t any conclusions, it was a chance for both sides to lay out their case.

To recap, the FBI wants Apple to help it unlock an encrypted iPhone tied to the San Bernardino case by building a customized version of iOS. Apple, on the other hand, argues that doing so would compromise security of every iPhone moving forward.

The problem is that allowing the government to unlock a single device has huge implications for the future of privacy. This case is not about the San Bernadino terrorists. I don’t even think the FBI thinks it will gain any new information pertinent to their case. This is all about establishing precedent for future cases.

The Department of Justice is not asking Apple to turn off the phone’s security or bypass the pin. It wants Apple to make it easier for the FBI to get into the device by guessing the passcode, without destroying the encrypted data on the phone. Specifically, the order signed by US magistrate judge Sheri Pym says Apple “shall assist in enabling the search” of the suspect’s iPhone by creating a special firmware that would only work on that particular device.

The firmware that the judge wants Apple to create would disable the security feature that erases the phone’s contents after 10 unsuccessful login attempts. It would also disable the time limits that grow longer after each failed attempt and allow authorities to connect the phone to a computer to “brute force” the passcode so that officials don’t have to tap it into the phone by hand.

Apple isn’t arguing about technical feasibility; it’s concerned with legal precedent. “The implications of the government’s demands are chilling,” Cook says in his letter. “If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data.” The company is afraid that once a backdoor is created, other agencies and governments will come demanding access in the name of global security.

Given what we now know about the government’s technological abilities, I find it hard to believe that the NSA or CIA doesn’t already have the capability to unlock the phone.

A hearing on Apple’s appeal is scheduled for March 22nd. It’s almost certain that the the decision will be appealed by the losing side. The case could go then to a district court judge, and if challenged there, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Ultimately, as many legal experts have predicted, the case could end up in the Supreme Court.

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