Apple Engineers Might Resist Court Order To Weaken iPhone Encryption

Image courtesy of Ed Uthman

A federal court in California is currently weighing whether or not Apple could be compelled to aid the FBI in unlocking an iPhone that belonged to one of the terrorists behind the Dec. 2, 2015 shootings in San Bernardino, CA. But even if the court rules that Apple must assist the government in opening the device, some engineers at the company are reportedly considering resistance.

The NY Times reports that Apple engineers are considering everything from quitting their jobs to merely dragging their feet on the work if they are ordered to aid the FBI.

Encryption protection on the iPhone prevents law enforcement from repeatedly attempting to guess the user’s passcode to unlock the device. If too many incorrect guesses are made, it could result in the loss of the data that the FBI believes might be on the phone.

This level of security is not something that the shooter added to his iPhone, but is built into newer models of the device. Not even Apple has a backdoor to quickly bypass the encryption.

What Apple could do — and was initially ordered to do in February — is create a weaker version of its operating system and transmit that as a software update to just this iPhone, allowing the FBI easier access.

However, Apple and privacy advocates worry that this is the thin edge of the wedge — if Apple must comply with this one order, then it could set a precedent where it must do the same for all iPhones involved in criminal investigations. Additionally, there are concerns that whatever weakened encryption Apple creates for this work-around could leak, putting many millions of devices at risk for attack by hackers.

One former Apple engineer turned venture capitalist tells the Times that law enforcement may have difficulty dealing with the “rebellious” culture of the Apple employees it needs assistance from: “If the government tries to compel testimony or action from these engineers, good luck with that.”

Additionally, these high-level Apple engineers are so in demand that even if they walk away from the company, they shouldn’t have any trouble finding work elsewhere — and in fact, some companies might hire them because they made the decision to walk away rather than weaken the product they created.

Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center says that compelling an encryption expert to produce something that gives law enforcement a backdoor is “like asking a doctor to administer a lethal drug.”

While the engineers might not have trouble finding work elsewhere if they walk, Apple could possibly be held in contempt of court or face significant financial penalties for non-compliance, though one former federal prosecutor admits that it the company could show that every single person at the company who could have created this work-around has quit, then maybe it might be able to say to the court that it had done all it could.

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