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The FBI is trying to frame its ongoing battle with Apple over iPhone encryption as a matter of freedom vs. security, claiming you have to give up one if you want the other. In fact, once you understand both the facts and the implications of what the FBI is asking Apple to do, it turns out to be a case of security vs. security, and the FBI’s position is the one that will make us all less safe.
We’ll start with the facts. The FBI has recovered an iPhone owned by one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino shooting in December. Because a security feature on the phone prevents them from efficiently hacking into it, the FBI is asking Apple to use its uniquely encrypted developer key to load new software onto the phone that would disable the feature. Developer keys are what devices read to ensure that updates are coming from a trusted source, and not from some malevolent third party. This is not about asking Apple to simply turn over data they already have, it involves creating new software and deploying it to introduce a security weakness into the iPhone’s operating system.
It should be noted that, even if the FBI gets access to the phone, the chances of obtaining useful information are very low. Apple has already turned over all the data stored in the iCloud, leaving very little remaining on the actual device. This is especially unlikely to generate new leads for the FBI, since the agency has already determined that the shooters were acting alone and not part of any broader terror network. The claim that American lives are at risk is simply not accurate.
Now, let’s move on to the implications of the FBI’s request. From a legal standpoint, the government is claiming the authority to enlist companies in conducting intelligence gathering. Let’s be clear that this is not about criminal prosecution—the shooters are already dead—but about collecting data for use in stopping future crimes. That’s not how warrants work, and to grant the FBI such broad authority in this case would mean vastly expanding its powers to compel private citizens to action. If the FBI can force Apple to use its developer key to hack this phone, there’s no reason they couldn’t force them to use the same key to turn on iPhone cameras and microphones to spy on suspicious individuals; a scary prospect given what we know about the NSA’s willingness to snoop on innocent Americans.