The FBI, Security, and Setting a Precedent
April 25, 2016

A lot has been said about the contention between Apple and the FBI, and a lot is still left to be said. I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while now, but only felt motivated to write about it after a discussion in one of my classes at UC Davis. The near unanimous decision of the class was that Apple should comply with the FBI.

For context, these are the relevant portions (feel free to consult the full text) of the order filed (it has since been withdrawn):

1. Apple shall assist in enabling the search of a cellular telephone ... (the "SUBJECT DEVICE") pursuant 
to a warrant of this Court by providing reasonable technical assistance to assists law enforcement agents 
in obtaining access to the data on the SUBJECT PHONE.

2. Apple's reasonable technical assistance shall accomplish the following three important functions:G 
(1) It will bypass or disable the auto-erase function whether or not it has been enabled; 
(2) it will enable the FBI to submit passcodes to the SUBJECT DEVICE for testing electronically ...

3. Apple's reasonable technical assistance may include, but is not limited to: providing the FBI with a 
signed iPhone Software file ("SIF") ... that can be loaded onto the SUBJECT DEVICE ... The SIF will be
coded by Apple with a unique identifier of the phone so that the SIF would only load and execute on the
SUBJECT DEVICE. Once active on the SUBJECT DEVICE, the SIF would accomplish the three functions specified 
in paragraph 2.

On the surface, these seem reasonable. After all, they’re only after the data on one phone, that of a confirmed terrorist, no less. What’s the harm? In an ideal world, if the above requests were possible, there would be no harm.

The problem is that a tool like this is not possible. Apple cannot create a tool that allows for access to this specific iPhone without also creating a tool that grants access to any iPhone. And once that tool exists it cannot be taken back. If the government is able to force Apple’s hand, there is immediately precedent for this tool to be reused to access another device. And another device after that. And another after that.

This would not be a one time thing. Access to iPhone data or no, there will always be tragedies. What will we say to those grieving after a robbery or assault? “Sorry, but this one isn’t sad enough for us to break into that phone / laptop / what have you. We promised we’d only do it once!”

Many police investigators have said they will push for Apple to unlock other phones if they comply in this case. And it won’t stop at phones. Computers, home surveillance systems, private conversations. This has been, and always was, about precedent.

The FBI knows this. They have access to phone records from the cell provider, to iCloud backups of the device from Apple. There is precious little to be gained from breaking into the phone, the San Bernardino police has said as much himself. “I’ll be honest with you, I think that there is a reasonably good chance that there is nothing of any value on the phone.” Apple proposed four different methods of unlocking the phone that did not involve crippling the phones security. The FBI was not satisfied.

Because this is not about the San Bernardino shooting. This is about unrestricted access to private information. Information that we have a right to keep private.

Note: The FBI has since withdrawn their request, and gained access to the iPhone through a third party. They announced their intention to explore this option the day before the case hearing. To date, no advancements have been made as a result of the information accessed.