Apple versus the Justice Department

I wish the conflict between Apple and the Justice Department did not exist. I can see merit to the arguments of both sides.

The Justice Department is trying to unlock the iPhone that was used by one of the terrorists in the San Bernardino massacre. The Justice Department has a legitimate reason for wanting to know what information is stored on the phone. These terrorists could have been communication with other prospective terrorists who are still at large and could take human lives, possibly even very many human lives, if they are not located and stopped.

According to reports, the data is so well encrypted that even the government cannot unlock it. Worse yet, from the Justice Department’s point of view, if 10 failed attempts are made to enter the phone’s pass code, all the data on the phone is erased.

The Justice Department wants Apple to create software to defeat this feature. Once the erase feature were disabled, the FBI could use brute force to unlock the phone by having a computer try all possible combinations of numbers until one of them works. The FBI would give the phone to Apple, Apple would use software that it has not yet written to defeat the erase feature, and the FBI would then apply the brute force method to unlock the phone.

This seems like a solution that has only an upside. Apple would keep the software it created, and the Justice Department would not have access to it, although it is possible (even probable given the current state of cyber security) that some foreign intelligence agency could hack into Apple at some future date and steal the software. If China did that, for example, it would be able to unlock the iPhone of any dissidents it wanted to silence.

Even if the software remains secure within Apple’s domain, if one government demands that a phone be unlocked, what’s to stop another government from making the same demand? If the US government has the right to get access to a phone, doesn’t China have that right also? If Apple gives into one government, even in a case as serious as this one, it will make it harder to resist future demands from any powerful government in countries where Apple does business.

This assumes, of course, that Apple can  develop software to defeat the phone’s lock mechanism. Apple has not denied that it has this ability, so I assume it does.

This is not a black-and-white matter, as the Justice Department is painting it. This is an argument with two sides.