Apple's showdown with the FBI was a long time coming

The San Bernardino case isn't the first time the company has refused to help the government unlock an iPhone.

Apple CEO Tim Cook
Credit: Blair Hanley Frank

Apple now has three extra days to fight the court order that would force the company to help the FBI get into the iPhone 5c at the heart of the San Bernardino terrorism case. According to Bloomberg, Apple must respond by February 26. That might not seem like a whole lot of time, but Apple has been preparing for this fight for years.

iphone 5c green Macworld UK

The FBI wants Apple's help cracking a passcode-protected iPhone 5c.

Apple has assisted the Justice Department in iPhone data extraction countless times since the iPhone launched. But as our phones have become repositories of our most private information—health records, financial data, photos, videos, emails, and more—the company has grown more reticent to be the government’s gatekeeper, according to new details in a New York Times report.

In 2014, after Edward Snowden revealed the lengths to which the U.S. government had gone to beef up surveillance, Apple released iOS 8, which introduced encryption for data on phones locked by a passcode. The operating system basically made it impossible for Apple to cooperate with the government, because without a person’s passcode, there was (and still is) no way to extract that data from a device. Apple has continued to help law enforcement agencies and turn over information when it can, say from unencrypted iCloud accounts, but decided last fall that it would no longer help the government crack its hardware—even when it’s possible.

Apple is currently fighting a case in Brooklyn where the state wants the company to unlock a passcode-protected phone running iOS 7 (meaning the data is not encrypted). A judge has yet to rule in that case. But the iPhone 5c at the center of the San Bernardino firestorm is different. The FBI wants Apple to write a version of iOS that wouldn’t auto-erase a device after 10 failed passcode guesses and wouldn’t insert delays after each wrong attempt, so the agency can brute force the passcode and get into the shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s phone.

The story behind the story: Many Apple watchers have wondered why this case, which is so fraught with emotion, is the one on which Apple chose to stake its defense of customer privacy. After all, to most people, Farook is indefensible. But the Cupertino company has been building up to this for quite some time, and actually had no intention of making such a showing of its resistance. According to the Times, the government decided to make its request public this time, and Apple CEO Tim Cook decided he had to publicly refuse. Now that the lines are drawn, it’s up to a judge to determine whether the law is on Apple’s side.

This story, "Apple's showdown with the FBI was a long time coming" was originally published by Macworld.