This story spread like wildfire through the tech media this week and is starting to be discussed in mainstream media outlets. Since this may be my last technology commentary for you in a while — I want to anticipate potential questions in advance and tell you how I see it.
Since iOS 8 was released in Fall 2014, the operating system on iPhones and iPads, it is arguably the safest OS in the world. We are now on iOS 9. Phones like the iPhone 5s, 6, 6 Plus, 6s, and 6s Plus all run iOS 9. Apple claims that it is not able to break into a customers phone due to the advanced security. 2013’s iPhone 5c, a slightly lower priced iPhone released by Apple also runs iOS 9, but it only has a 32 bit processor unlike the 64 bit models mentioned above. It also does not support the fingerprint sensor. Whether or not the the customer activates the "Touch ID", 5s and higher models have a much higher level of security built into them. iPhones with iOS 8 and 9 have been a huge frustration for law enforcement.
Syed Farook (and his wife), the radical Islamic terrorists that killed 14 co-workers in San Bernardino in early December owned an iPhone 5c. The FBI believes sensitive information is located on this phone that may help them close out this case and potentially thwart other terrorist attacks. A court order was issued this week ordering Apple to help the FBI break into the phone. Apple claims that there is no way to recover the password and unlock the phone. The court and FBI are essentially asking Apple to load some custom software onto the phone that can help retrieve data, bypassing the password that Mr. Farook put on the phone.
That password is important. Initially iOS only allowed a 4 digit code, but now it can be a longer, more secure code. Typically, if someone enters the wrong code 10 times – the phone will be automatically erased.
There is another important detail here. The iPhone 5c in question was owned by the San Bernardino Board of Health — Farook’s employer. Apple will not comply and they say that they are prepared to fight this all the way to the Supreme Court.
The key for me in this situation is that the phone belongs to the employer. It is their property. The phone was not Farook’s; his heirs do not have any claim to it. While I totally understand the privacy concern here and appreciate the design principles baked into iOS 8 and later, the FBI (backed by the employer) is simply being asked to get access to information stored on their property. I think we need to remove all the drama of a horrific terrorist act from this analysis.
I think Apple has every right to try and fight this. I also believe that if they are forced to comply, Apple should simply engineer a way to unlock the phone without being pressured to share their methods. There may be consequences for Apple. I could see regulatory agencies blocking shipments of iPhones into this country. Remember, they are all made in China (and Brazil). Apple could even lose the right to sell these phones without guarantee of cooperation in the future.
I don’t want to let the Health Department completely off the hook either. The iPhone, as well as Android device, allow for device policies to be set. These restrictions are especially useful for families protecting children or in the workplace. One restriction that can be placed on the phones is that the employee is not allowed to set a passcode. Another option is to not give the employee the ability to change the passcode. It seems that the employer failed to take these basic precautions.