A battle between privacy and national security has pitted the federal government against Apple.
The case stems from the December 2nd shooting at a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. The shooters were county employee Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik. The attack left 14 people dead and another 21 injured. The attack is being characterized as a terrorist attack as Malik declared allegiance to ISIS in a Facebook post.
In early February news outlets began reporting that the FBI still hasn't been able to access information from the Farook's cell phone. Because of the encryption technology that cell phones use, law enforcement officials at all levels are having similar troubles.
A week later, the government obtained a court order from U.S. Magistrate Sheri Pym that requires Apple to help the government gain access to Farook's phone, an iPhone 5C. The order requires Apple to create a new operating system. The system would just have to run on the specific cell phone in question and would modify certain security measures on the current iOS system that have made retrieving data stored on the phone impossible.
Apple's phones are basically impregnable, even to the company, once a user has entered a passcode because of Apple's encryption software. Thus the FBI needs the passcode on Farook's phone in order to unlock it. In addition, a setting on the phone will automatically erase all data on the phone after 10 failed guesses. So if the FBI didn't get it right within those 10 tries they could lose information about who Farook was contacting, what websites he was looking at, and any other valuable information stored on the cell phone. The court order requires Apple to create an iOS that bypasses or disables this function.
Apple phones also have a short time delay before you can enter a new passcode of 80 milliseconds. This delay can be extended by wrong entries. The court order also requests that Apple bypass or disable the delay function. One other security feature requires the passcode to be entered on the cell phone itself. The government wants Apple to find a way to let it connect the phone to a computer to enter passcodes guesses.
Apple has pushed back against the government order. CEO Tim Cook released an open letter to customers to share his concerns about the privacy of iPhone users. Cook stated that the government has "asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone." Cook's concerns are that "[i]n the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession." In addition, he states that "while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control."
It is true that other law enforcement agencies are dealing with the same difficulties as the FBI. Cyrus Vance the District Attorney for Manhattan stated that they currently have 175 Apple devices that they cannot gain access to. Another example is a Louisiana case where a pregnant woman was murdered. There may be clues on her cell phone but the police have no way of retrieving that data because the phone is locked.
Undoubtedly this legal battle is long from over. Only time, and likely a series of court opinions, will tell if Apple ends up having to comply with the order at all.