Apple’s issue with iPhone encryption

A federal judge has ordered Apple Computer Corp. to help the FBI decode the information on an Apple iPhone seized from a terrorist.  Apple’s Tim Cook has stated his reluctance to do so, arguing that such information would enable the government to decode everyone’s Apple iPhone.

Currently Apple iPhones are protected by a sophisticated encryption program that is impossible to decode.  But Tim Cook is not addressing the issue brought up by the FBI.  The FBI, according to the judge, wants to view the messages and data on only one iPhone, not all of them.

This is not at all different, in principle, from the phone company telling the FBI how to tap into an old-fashioned hardwire phone system.  In either case, in order to tap into one phone, the government needs a search warrant.  And one can compare these situations even further, and note that the government never used the power to wiretap to tap into everyone’s phone – only those suspected of crime.

The Fourth Amendment clearly states that government may seize documents and what is today called "data" only if a warrant is issued – a warrant that clearly specifies the place, type of information, and reason for the search.

That does not change in this case.  If it is possible for Apple to obtain that one phone the FBI is concerned about, and decode only that phone’s data, then this is still consistent with the Fourth Amendment and protects all others’ phones.  Even if everyone else’s phones can then be decoded, the government must still have a search warrant to obtain the information.

The FBI did not say it wants to decode all phones, just the one owned by the terrorist.  This was clearly intended to assist the FBI in only one investigation.  If Tim Cook is concerned that then all persons’ phones can be decoded, then one can only point to the situation today, where almost anybody – including the government – can have his personal records hacked, seized without permission, and used in crime.  This is impossible to stop, and eventually it may be impossible to stop even with iPhones. 

Tim Cook should compromise and offer to decode only one phone, while keeping the company’s method proprietary to Apple.  Let the government ask for more, and then Cook’s argument will be valid – that is, that he’s concerned that all phones will be decoded.  But that doesn’t seem to be what the FBI desires right now.