Since a pitched legal battle between the FBI and Apple began last month, the arguments over encryption and national security are deepening. A pair of test cases have produced inconclusive wins for each side. Neither Silicon Valley nor federal sleuths are budging.
But personal privacy and doubts about law enforcement’s motives give Apple the better argument in the case springing from the horrific San Bernardino shootings that left 14 dead. FBI Director James Comey told a congressional panel that his agency will be back with more demands to pry into other smartphones if he succeeds in unlocking an iPhone belonging to one of the killers.
That ghastly crime demands a full investigation. But if the FBI gets Apple to unlock a single smartphone, it sets an unnerving precedent. A powerful tool, once developed, will be hard to put away. Already other prosecutors and police departments are lining up garden-variety cases in which encrypted phones figure.
Apple, one of the world’s wealthiest corporations, isn’t without flaws. After the furor over National Security Agency eavesdropping — with which Apple quietly cooperated — the firm added more encryption to iPhones, the better to sell its products. Privacy became a marketing point, making its lofty-sounding protests a tad hypocritical.
But other principles are at stake. The FBI is dictating that a company write lock-busting software that lessens the worth of its own product. Once this handiwork is done, it could create a digital backdoor that criminals or hackers could exploit. Repressive countries such as China could demand Apple do the same and cough up password overrides, a worry underlined this week by the head of the U.N.’s human rights chief. The FBI’s plausible hunt for information on the San Bernardino shooters could swing out of control.
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