There is a lot of misinformation flying around about the order issued to Apple with respect to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. If you’re interested in doing a bit of in depth reading, I recommend reading the motion filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. For a shorter read, check out Orin Kerr.
Let me make some brief points.
First, the government is not asking Apple to break the phone’s encryption. They are seeking to have Apple turn off an auto-erase function, which (when turned on) automatically erases all the data on an iPhone if there are ten consecutive incorrect attempts to enter the four-digit passcode. They are seeking to have Apple allow the passcodes to be entered electronically — so nobody has to manually type in every possible four-digit combination. And they are seeking to have Apple disable a feature that introduces delays of increasing length as incorrect guesses at the passcode are made.
Second, this specific case does not implicate anyone’s right to privacy. The phone in question was a work phone issued to Syed Farook with the explicit understanding that he had no privacy in its contents. Moreover, Farook’s employer, which owns the phone, has consented to the search. Even if it were his private phone, a magistrate has issued a warrant based on probable cause. You can claim that this leads to a slippery slope, but government already has the ability to get warrants to look at phones, phone records, search your house, and so forth. Unless you are so paranoid that you want to disable the ability of law enforcement to do its everyday job — and increasingly many people seemingly are — then this is no big deal.
Third, as described by the government, the software in question would have a unique identifier so that it would only work with this single device.
I see people on Twitter and elsewhere claiming that this is an intrusion on Apple’s rights because it is the government forcing Apple to work for it, and to create a product that does not exist. This seems like a good argument until you think about it for a second. When law enforcement has a phone company set up a pen register or trap and trace, people at the phone company have to expend labor to comply. When law enforcement obtains a search warrant for cell phone records, a custodian of records has to work to comply.
When a Congressional committee, or a party seeking documents through FOIA, seeks Hillary’s emails, people have to work to comply. Are we saying they shouldn’t have to?
But, it is argued, Apple should not have to create a new software program for the government. I await Apple’s argument on this, as does Kerr — but such an argument seems unlikely to succeed. The features the government seeks to disable — such as the auto-erase, and the delays caused when bad passcode guesses are made — are features Apple put into their code. Creating software that turns those features off does not sound particularly hard for a company that created software to enable those features.
If the State Department said it had to write a program to efficiently search for Hillary’s emails, I think we would all say: OK, write the program . . . and hurry up about it!
To make the criminal justice system work, we compel the attendance of jurors, sometimes for weeks, at a pittance. We compel the attendance of witnesses, sometimes in situations where they are putting themselves in danger by testifying. And, as noted, companies complying with subpoenas and search warrants must expend labor as well.
And we all work for the government already, for weeks or months at a time — through the magic of the income tax!
Why, the government even has the power to send you off to war. To take your body and put it to its use, for years at a time, risking your life.
We’re really going to get that upset, then, about a coder being told to turn off features that he enabled in software? When we balance that against the chance to learn information about who else might have been involved in a plot to kill Americans?
This doesn’t seem like that close a call to me — now that I understand it. I encourage you to read the links above and become informed, so you understand it too.