Since 2014, Apple has provided default encryption on its iPhones which means that their contents can only be accessed by the user who knows the phone’s passcode. The encryption was introduced by Apple to protect the privacy of its customers from attacks by sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. It means that not even Apple can get a hold of the data.
The FBI has apparently done its best to by-pass Apple’s data encryption. Specifically, the FBI is seeking to access data on the iPhone 5C used by the perpetrators of the San Bernardino mass shootings. In a comforting outcome for consumers it appears that the FBI simply can’t do it.
So, in a bizarre twist, the US Federal Court has relied upon the antiquated All Writs Act of 1789 to order Apple to hack its own iPhone. It’s not that some prescient 1789 legislators foresaw the need to hack an iPhone. Rather, the Act gives the US Supreme Court and other courts established by an Act of Congress the power to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law”.
Apple says that this is a classic example of ‘hard cases make bad law’ and has indicated that it will challenge the ruling.
In an open letter to its customers (which may just be the PR coup of the year), Apple CEO Tim Cook has stated that, while it supports the Government’s desire to combat terrorism, it is compelled to protect its customers from what is sees as an unacceptable threat to their data security:
“[T]he FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”
Stay tuned, because any appeal by Apple may just be the most important US Privacy case of 2016.