WASHINGTON—A U.S. magistrate’s order for Apple Inc. to help the FBI hack into an iPhone used by the gunman in the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. sets up an extraordinary legal fight with implications for ordinary consumers and digital privacy.
The clash brings to a head a long-simmering debate between technology companies insistent on protecting digital privacy and law enforcement agencies concerned about becoming unable to recover evidence or eavesdrop on the communications of terrorists or criminals.
Yesterday, the White House began disputing the contention by Apple’s chief executive officer, Tim Cook, that the Obama administration is seeking to force the software company to build a “backdoor” to bypass digital locks protecting consumer information on Apple’s popular iPhones.
The early arguments set the stage for what likely will be a protracted policy and public relations fight in the courts, on Capitol Hill, on the Internet, and elsewhere.
“They are not asking Apple to redesign its product or to create a new ‘backdoor’ to one of their products,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
“They’re simply asking for something that would have an impact on this one device.”
Within hours of the judge’s order on Tuesday telling Apple to aid the FBI with special software in the case, Cook promised a court challenge.
He said the software the FBI would need to unlock the gunman’s work-issued iPhone 5C would be “too dangerous to create” and called it “undeniably” a backdoor.
Cook compared it to a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks, and said there was no way to keep the technique secret once it’s developed.
“Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge,” he warned.
At the centre of the debate are the private data carried on nearly 900 million iPhones sold worldwide, including photographs, videos, chat messages, health records, and more.
There was swift reaction on the presidential campaign trail, where Donald Trump told Fox News that he agreed “100 percent with the courts.”
On Capitol Hill, Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “Court orders are not optional and Apple should comply.”
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who fought encryption in the 1990s, said she thought the government should be able to access the phone.
But Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., called the Justice Department’s request “unconscionable and unconstitutional.”
The ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym represents a significant victory for the Justice Department, which last year decided not to pursue a legislative fix to address encryption but now has scored a win instead in the courts.
Federal officials until now have struggled to identify a high-profile case to make its concerns resonate.
But in siding with the government, Pym, a former federal prosecutor, was persuaded that agents investigating the worst terror attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11 had been hobbled by their inability to unlock the county-owned phone used by Syed Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in December before dying in a police shootout.
The dispute places Apple, one of the world’s most respected companies, on the side of protecting the digital privacy of an accused Islamic terrorist.