Apple Refuses to Unlock Terrorist's iPhone, reads the headline. Headlines have a way of confusing the truth. The iPhone in question belonged to Syed Farook, one of the perpetrator of the San Bernardino shooting. The FBI has his iPhone and wants to see what's inside. Apple already provided them technical assistance and the contents of an iCloud backup. But Apple can't unlock the phone because Apple doesn't have the key.
When you lock your screen with a simple 4-digit code, that code also locks down the phone. No one can get inside without knowing the code. Why not try every code until one works? That would be easy, so Apple made phone locks hard to pick. The FBI's solution: obtain a court order requiring Apple to write a special version of the operating system that makes the lock easier to pick. The FBI believes that the All Writs Act from 1789 gives them the authority to make such a demand.
Once created, such software could be court-ordered by the FBI every single time they want to open an iPhone. And not only the FBI: every intelligence agency in the world will ask for it, including Russia and China. And not just governments: criminals are always looking for holes they can exploit. What happens when a company is punching holes in it's own security? This is why Apple calls it "the software equivalent of cancer."
It's also why the FBI cares about this case. Intelligence agencies think they should have access to whatever they want whenever they want it. They will use whatever means they can to get their hands on anything. The only limits they respect are ones Congress has created and the courts enforce. And that's why this case matters to the American people.
Fortunately for Apple, a New York judge recently sided with them in a similar case. The judge, at least, understands what is at stake here:
In deciding this motion, I offer no opinion as to whether, in the circumstances of this case or others, the government's legitimate interest in ensuring that no door is too strong to resist lawful entry should prevail against the equally legitimate societal interests arrayed against it here....
How best to balance those interests is a matter of critical importance to our society, and the need for an answer becomes more pressing daily, as the tide of technological advance flows ever farther past the boundaries of what seemed possible even a few decades ago.
But that debate must happen today, and it must take place among legislators who are equipped to consider the technological and cultural realities of a world their predecessors could not begin to conceive. It would betray our constitutional heritage and our people's claim to democratic governance for a judge to pretend that our Founders already had that debate, and ended it, in 1789.
We need open, honest, intelligent public debate about technology and security. Sadly, Presidential candidates were posed this question at a recent debate and none of them raised the larger issues. American society spends far too much time talking and not enough time listening to people, ideas, and the opposition. Wisdom takes time and requires input from many sides. We cannot allow our government leaders to pass quick laws and assume they have solved a problem. America: it's your government -- demand better.