Although the government’s request asks Apple to help bypass security on just one device, the company is alarmed by the precedent its compliance would set, fearing it could be asked for further such assistance down the line.
In the future, “if [law enforcement] is going to arrest somebody, what they could do is force the user to update their phone” to the security-weakened version of iOS Apple has been asked to create for the San Bernardino case, said Amie Stepanovich, U.S. policy manager for Access Now, a group that advocates for digital rights. The government could be setting up a precedent to force Apple or other companies “to continually hack [their] users,” she said.
“They’re basically compelling speech,” she continued, referring to the demand to produce code that enables malicious attacks. “It’s a slippery slope. They could compel other companies to build code in order to facilitate other intrusions.”
Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has said that a government victory over Apple in the San Bernardino case could have implications for other companies, including Open Whisper Systems, which under co-founder Moxie Marlinspike released a popular encrypted calling app known as Signal. “If the FBI’s argument against Apple succeeds,” Cardozo recently tweeted, “nothing prevents them from ordering Moxie to backdoor Signal.”
Critics have also taken aim at the legal avenue through which the government is trying to compel Apple’s cooperation. To get its way, the government is leveraging the All Writs Act, a federal statute that allows it to require Apple to take extra steps to help fulfill an earlier lawful request, in this case the warrant to search the iPhone. The government turned to the act after the FBI spent two months trying to figure out a way into the phone and was unable to find one. The act’s lineage traces back to the Judiciary Act of 1789, though it has been updated numerous times since it was introduced.
“The court is ordering Apple to create a backdoor into an iPhone’s operating system, citing a law adopted in 1789,” said Greg Nojeim, director of the Freedom, Security and Technology Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology in a statement. “If the order stands, the defective operating system (iOS) could be installed over any existing version of iOS, enabling law enforcement officials to guess the password on a cellphone. If the order stands, Apple and other technology companies could be ordered to build backdoors — essentially defects — into other devices, rendering them insecure and vulnerable to attack by law enforcement and by others as well. We will fight against this result.”