Why Apple Is Fighting Back

We knew this was going to happen. In 2014 Apple announced that its newest system – the iOS 8 – would not permit the company to access data in an iPhone. “Unlike our competitors,” reads Apple’s policy, “Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access [private] data.” It specifically claimed to not even be able to access private data because “it’s not technically feasible for [Apple] to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.” In doing so, Apple set itself on a collision course with law enforcement. Yesterday, we heard the crash when a federal judge ordered Apple to do just that.

I have to hand it to the federal prosecutors, they picked the perfect case to try and force Apple’s hand. The iPhone that federal law enforcement wants access to was used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Farook. The bloodshed and violation he and his wife perpetrated remain open wounds, unable to heal because we still don’t know how or why it happened. The public desperately needs the answers that are in that phone. And the phone was not even Farook’s – it was provided by his government employer and that employer has given permission for the search of the phone. All of this makes the case of Farook’s iPhone a a very compelling vehicle to test Apple’s policy.

In its request to the court, the government explained that the issue in the case is the password to get into the phone. The operating system erases all data after 10 failed password attempts, so continued failed attempts to get into the phone will mean disaster. What the feds want is for Apple to design software that will allow them to run thousands of passwords until the correct one is found and unlocks the phone. Specifically, the order requires Apple to “provide reasonable technical assistance to law enforcement to law enforcement agents in obtaining access to the data” in the phone. The order gives Apple 5 days to object to the directive as “unreasonably burdensome.”

Apple has wasted no time publicly refusing to cooperate, issuing a statement that “The government would have us remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by ‘brute force,’ trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer.” The statement also acknowledges that, “The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”

Of course, Apple will file a legal opposition to the judge’s order and that if it fails, Apple will appeal the order to the Ninth Circuit, possibly all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case of Farook’s iPhone won’t be resolved any time soon. The wheels of justice turn very, very slowly. In the meantime, Apple CEO Tim Cook has called for congress to pass legislation backing Apple’s stance. States have jumped into the fray, too. California and New York are both considering laws that would ban the sale of phones without a backdoor to access data.

The implications of this case are serious for the Internet of Things. Convincing the public to trust that our personal data will not be shared or subject to a subpoena in everything from a criminal court to divorce proceedings, is a big obstacle to full adoption of new technologies. Actual big brothers are helpful and make life better. Technological Big Brothers are not. Whether companies that use voice commands (and hence are likely capable of recording), track health, location and home practices can assure complete security to customers could mean the difference between success or failure of these products even before they get going. For the Internet of Things to succeed and become truly mass market, the consumer must feel that the core underpinnings of data and security remain in their favor, not the government.

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