Apple and the FBI are currently locked in a legal battle over an iPhone.
The Bureau wants the Cupertino company to help it unlock an encrypted device belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters — but Apple is refusing, arguing doing so would create a “backdoor” and make users less safe.
Many view the case as having the potential to set significant precedent in what law enforcement can compel tech companies to do to aid them (although FBI director James Comey argues it isn’t about setting a precedent).
This argument just got a major boost — The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday evening that the US Justice Department is currently trying to get Apple’s assistance in a dozen other previously undisclosed cases around the country.
Business Insider has reached out to Apple for comment on The Journal’s report, and will update this story when it responds.
An exceptional one off — or a dangerous precedent?
In the San Bernardino case, the FBI wants to gain access to the iPhone of shooter Syed Farook — to better understand his motivations and potentially help prevent further attacks.
It’s important to note that the FBI isn’t asking Apple to remove the encryption or surrender any encryption keys (something Apple says it cannot do). Instead, it wants the company to create a new version of iOS, the mobile operating system, and load it onto the device, that removes certain security protections — including a feature that wipes the device’s memory after an incorrect passcode is entered too many times.
The new custom iOS will let the FBI quickly “brute-force” guess every single possible passcode — but Apple argues that it is effectively being ordered to hack into one of its own devices.
Many of Apple’s supporters argue that a vital precedent is at stake — if tech companies can be legally compelled to write new code to hack their users, everyone is less safe as a result.
“If a court can legally compel Apple to do that, then it likely could also legally compel any other software provider to do the same, including compelling the secret installation of malware via automatic updates to your phone or laptop’s operating system or other software,” Kevin Bankston, director of the nonprofit New America’s Open Technology Institute, previously told Business Insider. “In other words, this isn’t just about one iPhone — it’s about all of our software and all of our digital devices, and if this precedent gets set, it will spell digital disaster for the trustworthiness of everyone’s computers and mobile phones.”
James Comey, the director of the FBI, has said that the case isn’t about setting a precedent. “The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice,” he wrote in a blog post on Sunday. “Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined.”
But The Journal’s new report will only embolden Apple supporters.
It reports, citing unnamed “people familiar with the matter,” that there are “about” 12 other cases ongoing in which the Justice Department is trying to make Apple help it access data on encrypted iPhones. All of these cases involve the All Writs Act — the eighteenth-century legal mechanism the FBI is using in the San Bernardino case.
Significantly, the 12 cases are reportedly not related to terrorism. The implication is that if the FBI succeeds, then it won’t be an isolated incident — there will be numerous instances in which Apple (and potentially other companies too) is forced to help law enforcement hack into its users.
In an open letter to customers last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook discussed this issue. “The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone,” he wrote. “But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”
Opinion is divided on Apple
The ongoing FBI case is highly divisive.
Over half of Americans think that Apple should help unlock the iPhone, according to a Pew poll, although tech industry leaders have broadly come out in support of the company. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that “we know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism. We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent.”
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, said that “we stand with [Tim Cook] and Apple (and thank him for his leadership!).”
But Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft, thinks Apple should assist the FBI. “This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They are not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case,” Gates told The Financial Times.
“It is no different than [the question of] should anybody ever have been able to tell the phone company to get information, should anybody be able to get at bank records. Let’s say the bank had tied a ribbon round the disk drive and said ‘don’t make me cut this ribbon because you’ll make me cut it many times.'”
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