Apple is in a dispute with the FBI over the encryption of a certain iPhone, but there's more to it than that.
With firearms and explosives at hand, the San Bernardino shooters Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik attacked the Inland Regional Center in the area back in December 2015. They took the lives of 14 people before the police were able to take them down.
The FBI got ahold of Farook's iPhone 5c, a company phone that his employer, San Bernardino County, owned. The investigators have gotten permission from the county and a search warrant to inspect the phone in detail, but it has a passcode that the FBI can't decipher easily.
Apple designed the iPhone security in a way that it's even impossible for the company itself to unlock without the user's content. The physical device has a unique code and a PIN that's set by the owner on top of it to make sure the data stays safe.
"Some of our most personal data is on the phone: our financial data, our health information, our conversations with our friends and family and co-workers," Apple CEO Tim Cook told NPR back in October 2015.
The Cupertino brand also notes that no third party can crack the code.
At first glance, it seems like investigators should be able to gain access to the iPhone in due time through guesswork, but the security features of the device prevent them from doing so.
First off, the iPhone is set to auto-erase all its data after 10 incorrect tries. Second, after a couple of failed entries, it'll have a delay between each attempt. Lastly, it doesn't allow computers to decrypt the code, where each try must be keyed in manually.
As a result, the FBI wants Apple to develop a special kind of software that would disable those security measures. It'll use a computer to enter as many passcodes as necessary when the company complies, which could only take 30 minutes if the four-digit code consists of only numbers, according to experts.
Only Apple can develop the tool, as it's the only company that has the necessary security credentials to deliver software to iPhones.
Apple refuses to cooperate because of the consequences, leading to a federal judge ordering the company to carry out the investigators' demand.
The Implications: Why It Matters
The company doesn't want to develop this software because it involves creating an entirely new iPhone OS tailored for this purpose.
"In the wrong hands, this software – which does not exist today – would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession," Cook says in an open letter, noting that it is a "dangerous precedent."
Apple considers this as a request for a backdoor to the iPhone, which potentially exposes users to attacks. However, the FBI insists that it will be limited to one particular device only.
On that note, Cook says that if Apple does make the tool, there's always the possibility that it'll spread and be used for malicious intent.
"The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control," he continues.
More to the point, the FBI will continue to keep coming back to Apple whenever a similar case emerges if the company builds the software. Furthermore, other countries could start asking the Cupertino brand to provide them with the tool in the future as well.
In other words, Apple deems the tool to be too dangerous, as cybercriminals could get their hands on it and steal the personal information of iPhone users everywhere.
The Investigators' Cards
The FBI is using the All Writs Act of the Judiciary Act of 1789, and according to it, courts "may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law."
In this case, however, the government isn't asking Apple to simply unlock a phone but demanding it to develop a tool that can access a device that's made to be impossible to break into.
"If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone's device to capture their data," Cook says, remarking that the demands are "chilling."
Apple only has a few days left to respond to the order. It would be interesting to see whether the company will give in to the authorities' demand or stick by what it believes is right.