Court Orders Apple to Unlock iPhone of San Bernardino Shooter

Blue folder with the label Privacy Law

March 2nd, 2016

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By CHHS Research Assistant Marissa Johnson

The relationship between the U.S. tech industry and government hangs in the balance as Apple, Inc. and the FBI continue to disagree over unlocking one of the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone.  A magistrate Judge in the U.S. District Court of Central California ordered Apple to provide the FBI with software to access the locked iPhone that was once used by Syed Rizwan Farook. The phone was last backed up six weeks before the shooting, so the FBI has access to all of the information except from the weeks leading up to the tragic event. All iPhones are equipped with a “self-erase mechanism” that wipes the phone clean if too many incorrect password login attempts are made. The software the FBI is seeking would allow them to try as many passwords as necessary to unlock the phone without consequences like losing the phone’s data.

Apple, Inc. is taking a strong stance against the court order to create this unique software. In an email to all Apple employees CEO Tim Cook stated, “the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people is at stake and this could set a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties”. Apple is interested in helping the FBI obtain the information they need, but feel that developing this software would not be a safe option, because it goes beyond the scope of what government may reasonably demand under the Constitution. Moreover, developing a method for accessing an encrypted phone, gives hackers and ill-intentioned people potential access to this software as well. Apple believes that once they create the software there is no way to guarantee it could not fall into the wrong hands or that it could lead to more government intrusions. Cook, with his stance on this issue, is making it clear that he will not do anything to jeopardize Apple consumers’ privacy. Organizations including Facebook and Google have commented on the issue in support of Apple’s decision.

While Apple has made strong points to defend their position, the FBI has a very convincing point of view as well. FBI Director James Comey stated in his reply to Cook’s email that accessing the iPhone is about “the victims and justice”. He made clear that the FBI is not interested in a “master key,” but simply wants access to this one iPhone. Comey argued that the FBI is trying to do a thorough investigation of an event that devastated numerous lives, and the American people deserve all information to be examined.

Currently, Apple is fighting the court order in the hopes of not having to create the software for the FBI, but this is an ongoing issue that does not look like it will be resolved any time soon. Apple has made it clear that they have cooperated with law enforcement in the past but they have never been asked to develop software that would weaken an iPhone’s passcode security. On the other hand, the FBI has a job to do in seeking justice for the victims and looking for any clues that could prove there were terrorist ties to this event.

Cyrus Vance, district attorney for Manhattan said in an interview, “… if the FBI wins and is given access to the phone, I have 175 iPhones waiting to be unlocked for other cases”. Looking to the future, the outcome of this case could set the precedent of what the relationship between the government and tech industry will be.

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