The FBI wants access to the iPhone of San Bernardino terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook, and Apple CEO Tim Cook is resisting and putting his refusal in apocalyptic terms. Should Apple comply with a judge’s order to help the FBI, we’re supposed to believe, it will have created the privacy equivalent of a doomsday device, making everyone vulnerable to the intrusions of government and depredations of hackers and criminals.
This is trite marketing — only Apple can save us from Big Brother, and by the way, please keep buying our phones — masquerading as bravery.
In the San Bernardino case, one wonders whose privacy Apple thinks it’s protecting. As former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy notes, Farook is dead. There is no doubt that the government has probable cause to search his phone. And the phone in question didn’t even belong to him. It is the property of his former employer, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, which had the right to search it at will and is fine with the FBI gaining access to it.
Apple wants to give the impression that the key to Farook’s phone is the key to the kingdom, but it’s not so. As Timothy Lee explains on the website Vox, the FBI doesn’t need to defeat the encryption on Farook’s phone and thus, in theory, endanger the encryption on other phones. It just needs to get into the phone. For that, it needs to get past the first line of defense, the device’s passcode.
This is possible through what is called “brute force.” A robot can punch in every possible combination until the phone unlocks. Except the iPhone has security features to defeat anyone who doesn’t know the passcode. The FBI wants Apple to change the software on Farook’s phone so it can force the device open.
This isn’t Armageddon. As Lee writes, “Apple has tacitly admitted that it can modify the software on Farook’s iPhone to give the FBI access without damaging the security of anyone else’s iPhone.” No one is going to have his or her privacy compromised because the FBI, in this one instance, with heroic technological exertions, gets into a dead terrorist’s phone.
Apple’s position is basically, Don’t worry about ISIS, don’t worry about tracking down every possible lead in a terrorism case. Worry about what cooperating with the government might do to the company’s reputation, and about a parade of horribles that might ensue if we slide from here several miles down a slippery slope.
If Apple wants to avoid getting coerced by Congress into building a real “backdoor” to all its software, a much larger and more fraught proposition, it has embarked on a foolish course by choosing such an unsympathetic test case. The chances are high that Apple will be seen to be acting unreasonably — since it is acting unreasonably.
Apple’s contribution to American life is a product that is almost impossible to live without. The company is synonymous with sleek and cool, and has an enormous reservoir of goodwill. It shouldn’t diminish it by staking out an indefensible position and elevating it to faux high principle. Unlock Syed Rizwan Farook’s phone.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review. (c) 2016 by King Features Synd., Inc.