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Civil Disobedience at Apple

Engineers at Apple are drawing a line in the sand. According to The Hill, multiple employees of the company have stated that they will outright refuse to comply with orders from the FBI to weaken iPhone security, should the agency prevail in an ongoing court battle. For some, this would mean resigning from the company, for others, simply declining to write specific code, whatever the cost may be to their professional futures.

This is the kind of admirable civil disobedience that has always been the most effective way of pushing back against government overreach. In this case, what the FBI is asking for is such an egregious transgression of basic liberties that men of good conscience can hardly do other than resist.

Let’s quickly review the facts under discussion: The FBI has obtained an iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino shooter, and wants to find out what’s inside it. He FBI has no shortage of talented hackers who could ordinarily break into the device, but the problem is that the phone’s software includes a failsafe that will wipe all data from it after ten failed login attempts in a set period of time. This dramatically slows down the FBI’s ability to break into the phone.

Because of this, the FBI has asked Apple (asked is putting it nicely. Actually they’re trying to legally force Apple) to write new code that can be installed on the device to disable the failsafe. The way Apple can do this is by using its developer key, a special identifier that allows phones to receive updates only from the manufacture, and screen out potentially harmful software from third parties.

Why is this such a big deal? The FBI wants to treat this like an ordinary search warrant situation, in which a company is compelled to hand over information in the aid of prosecuting a criminal case. But this is not an accurate analogy. Apple doesn’t have access to the phone. They have already turned over all the data they have obtained from the iCloud, but data stored physically on the device is unavailable to Apple or to anyone else. This is by design. Apple has built a reputation of constructing very secure phones, and that is part of why the company has been so successful. If Apple gives itself access to its phones, or uses its developer key to break into phones, that reputation will be undermined and people concerned about security will switch to other - perhaps foreign-made - products. It’s hard to see how anyone benefits from the FBI driving users away from an American, mostly cooperative company, to a foreign one that would be a lot more hostile to American interests.

More fundamentally, though, this is a legal question of what the government can force companies to do. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits involuntary servitude. If the government can force private citizens to write code on its behalf, for any purpose it deems necessary for national security or solving criminal cases, it could theoretically compel anyone to do anything. THe legal system operates on precedent, and there’s no such thing as an exception for one specific case. If the courts rule in favor of the FBI now, it undermines any defense against government coersion in the future.

There’s also a free speech argument to be made. If what a person writes, including code, counts as speech, as some legal scholars claim it does, then for the FBI to compel programmers to write specific code they don’t want to write would be a violation of the First Amendment.

The resistance of Apple employees to bullying from the federal government is an inspiring defense of freedom that has ramifications for years to come. Don’t be fooled by claims that this is just about San Bernardino. The precedent set in this case will determine how much power the government really has to make any of us work against our wills.