If the FBI wins its court battle to force Apple to unlock an iPhone used by one of the assailants in the San Bernardino terrorist attacks, the result could be a massive security hole that would affect many federal agencies.
Apple continues to oppose a California judge's order to unlock security features on the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook.
The FBI has argued that it only wants the data from one iPhone. Apple contends that it would have to write software that could potentially unlock any iPhone, thereby threatening the privacy of anyone who owns the smartphone.
What has largely gone unreported in the controversy, however, is that the federal government over the past four years has largely shifted its use of mobile devices from Blackberry to iPhones. The reason? The iPhone's strong, native passcode security.
If Apple were to create a security skeleton key, it would represent a valuable prize for hackers seeking to break the work phones of federal employees.
Apple this week formally appealed a California judge's order requiring it to help the FBI defeat the password protection on Farook's iPhone.
Digital privacy advocates are supporting Apple in its bid to keep its iPhone encryption algorithm safe.
In another ironic twist, in its rush to gather information, the FBI blew its chance to retrieve data from the iPhone when it ordered that Farook's password to Apple's online storage service, iCloud, be reset shortly after the attacks.
The FBI believed that by resetting the iCloud password, it could gain access to the iPhone. Instead, the password change did the opposite by locking agents out and eliminating other means of gaining access to any information on the device.
"If the FBI hadn't instructed San Bernardino County to change the password to the iCloud account, all this would have been unnecessary, and you would have had that information," Rep. Jerrold Nadler, (D-NY), said during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.
If the FBI was rash in its attempt to initially break into Farook's iPhone, why should anyone assume its being any less rash in demanding that Apple make a defeat mechanism? Sure, Apple might be able to keep that software under wraps, but once it has been created it, nothing will un-create it.
And the consequences of exposing iPhones to security breaches go well beyond U.S. citizens and the federal government.
For example, a member of France’s Socialist Party today submitted an amendment to a bill aimed at strengthening the government’s ability to fight terrorism that would impose a $1 million fine on Apple each time the company refused to unlock an iPhone in France.
So the snowball effect that Apple has been so concerned with, and that the FBI has so arbitrarily swept aside in its arguments, is real. Once the precedent is set and once the genie is out of the bottle, there will be no putting it back.