This situation is a little more involved than it appears. On the surface, it looks like Apple is refusing to help the FBI hack into the iPhone of a terrorist, but in truth Apple is refusing to create software that can be abused.
The iPhone in question is protected by the same encryption that every iPhone has. A pin is required to unlock it and it is protected by three security features: an auto-erase function that deletes the phone’s content after 10 incorrect passwords, a mandatory delay between entering passwords after a certain number of failed attempts, and a requirement that the password be entered manually instead of being quickly entered by a computer.
What the FBI is asking Apple to do is create software that will circumvent those security features, allowing the FBI to “brute force” the password with computers. Apple feels that building that kind of software would amount to building a whole “new version of the iPhone operating system”, specifically made to lift the security features. Apple CEO Tim Cook said this in an open letter:
“In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession. …
“The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”
Apple has complied with everything the FBI has asked for up until now. The company feels that once such a software is created, the FBI could easily come to them and ask them to do it again. The company doesn’t want software like this to exist.
Apple isn’t alone, they have the support of others in the tech world. Edward Snowden agrees that this software is bad news and would allow the FBI to break into any iPhone in under a half hour. The chief executive of Google and the founder of WhatsApp also stand by Apple and their decision to contest the FBI, they fear that once a precedent is set, backdoors could be forced into their code too and once a security bypass exists, it could fall into the hands of criminals.
Time will tell is Apple buckles under government pressure, or if a different method can be agreed upon.