"This week a federal judge ordered Apple to help the FBI unlock a work-issued iPhone used by a gunman in December’s deadly San Bernardino, California, shootings. But Apple opposed the ruling, objecting to building what it calls a “backdoor.”In a message posted on the company’s website, CEO Tim Cook said that while the company believes the FBI’s intentions are good, this demand is an “unprecedented step” that “threatens the security of our customers.” The case is raising the stakes in a complex and long-running standoff between government and Silicon Valley over access to encrypted data—one that involves balancing consumers’ digital privacy with the authorities’ ability to investigate crime or terrorism.
Andrea Matwyshyn, professor in the School of Law, studies technology innovation and its legal implications. We asked her to examine how this case might play out, with a particular focus on its potential impact on future federal investigations, the average iPhone user’s privacy, and the global market.
In a message to customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote that while the government may argue that using this backdoor would be limited to this case, “there is no way to guarantee such control.” He added that the government could extend this “breach of privacy” to demand that Apple create surveillance technology and other software to access users’ phones without their knowledge. Are these fears justified, and if a so-called “master key” is created, how broad could its usage be by the government?
Certainly any case law arising from this ex parte demand by the Department of Justice would create precedent that other courts would regard as instructive for similar future law enforcement demands. It’s fair to worry about a slippery slope arising from the outcome of this dispute: If private sector entities become conscripted as unwilling agents of law enforcement and are no longer free to design their own products to meet the demands of their customers, our innovation-driven economy will be permanently damaged.
To date, Congress has been unwilling to legislate on the point of requiring technology companies to alter their product designs to include law enforcement “backdoors,” despite aggressive lobbying efforts from law enforcement. This ex parte order against Apple potentially represents law enforcement’s attempt to circumvent this congressional impasse by achieving a functionally similar result incrementally through the courts."