Apple (News - Alert) and most tech companies comply with law enforcement request for data that helps solve crimes. Apple put its foot down, however, when a federal court ordered Apple to create what amounted to a backdoor that would give access to the encrypted iPhone (News - Alert) used by Syed Farook, an attacker in the December San Bernardino, Calif. mass shooting.
“The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone,” wrote Apple CEO Tim in an open letter on February 16. “In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”
The FBI has not technically asked Apple for a backdoor, but they have requested that the smartphone maker build a custom version of the operating system and load it onto the phone so the FBI can effectively bypass the security measures in place on the phone. Apple says it does not currently have such software, and is expected to resist the request by using the All Writs Act of 1789 that limits the government from asking third parties for more than “nonburdensome technical assistance.”
The tech industry’s response to Apple’s civil disobedience has been muted; Google said that hacking customer devices “could be a troubling precedent,” Facebook (News - Alert) and Twitter came out against the request but carefully, and even the group created by Apple, Microsoft and others to protect security freedom, Reform Government Surveillance, was cautious when addressing the open letter by Cook.
No company wants to be seen as against law enforcement, especially during a year of presidential campaigning (Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has already weighed in against Apple for resisting the court order). The stain of antagonism to government could potentially jeopardize government contracts. Further, some worry that Apple’s line in the sand could backfire and set precedent for backdoor exploit requests if the company loses its legal fight against the FBI.
Apple not only is standing by its principles in defending the fidelity of its security measures, however; it also has lots to lose by opening the door for iPhone device encryption, and fighting the court order is less damaging for Apple than for some of its rivals because it doesn’t have a major stake in government sales or using consumer data. Unlike Google (News - Alert) and others, it is primarily a hardware manufacturer and not an online services company making its money from customer data. Enabling the potential for hacking the iPhone, on the other hand, might cause consumers to trust the devices less.
So Apple is both standing by its principles and acting in its own self-interest. In the process, it is fighting a battle that most of the tech industry is hoping it will win, even if most are unwilling to stand behind the company publically.