A New Front in an Old Encryption Fight


The tension between data privacy and government intelligence gathering boiled over in February thanks to a locked iPhone the FBI claims it is unable to hack its way into.

The dispute has brought publicity to a government-waged war on encryption that goes all the way back to the dawn of the age of consumer computer technology. In the January 1981 issue of reason, Sylvia Sanders delved into the brewing battle. The National Security Agency (NSA) was attempting to manipulate patent regulations with "secrecy orders" to try to keep new encryption inventions from entering the marketplace. Sanders saw the future of digital data and warned what was coming if the NSA succeeded in keeping encryption out of consumer electronics: "Legal suppression of cryptography will only serve to drive it underground, into the hands of criminals and out of the country."

Technology has grown far more complex since the days of the TRS-80 and the dominance of IBM, but the same attitude—that government should have access to all data regardless of the impact on citizens' privacy—still drives the conflict.

The phone now in question was in the possession of Syed Rizwan Farook, a man who in December killed 14 people in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, with the help of his wife. The couple was subsequently killed in a confrontation with police. The iPhone, which was given to Farook by his employer, contains data the FBI wants to access as part of its investigation. But the bureau hit a snag: The phone has a passcode, and as a security precaution, after 10 failed attempts to guess the code, its contents will automatically be deleted.

Farook's employer does not know the code and therefore can't assist the FBI in cracking it. So the FBI turned to Apple, the phone's manufacturer. The company has cooperated in providing any data from Farook in its possession as a third party. But now the FBI wants to force Apple to develop a tool or software program to weaken the phone's encryption, allowing the agency to get around the device's built-in security features. Apple—with the support of tech companies and privacy experts concerned that weakening encryption would expose consumers to criminals, hackers, and oppressive governments—is resisting a judge's order to cooperate.