Will Apple give in to FBI demands to hack into a San Bernardino shooter’s phone?

By Tina Irgang

This story has been updated.

The FBI has asked Apple to hack into an iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, on the presumption that the phone contains important evidence that could help prevent future attacks. Apple has refused. Who will blink first, and what does it mean for you as an owner of a business and, probably, an iPhone?

Here’s what the FBI can claim in its favor: The phone in question was actually owned by Farook’s employer, San Bernardino County, and the FBI has permission to access the phone from the county, as well as a warrant to search it, according to NPR. Once Apple refused an initial request from the FBI, the FBI obtained an order from a federal judge ordering Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” in accessing the phone.

Apple is challenging that order. In an open letter to customers, CEO Tim Cook explains the company’s reasoning: “The FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”

What does it all mean for U.S. businesses?

The implications of creating software to circumvent security features could also be significant for any business that, like Apple, hosts data for customers but doesn’t currently have the means of accessing it, says Dan Regard, CEO and co-founder of Washington, DC-based iDiscovery Solutions, which performs digital forensics and data analytics. “I think Apple has a legitimate concern that this is a step toward granting the government the ability to compel companies to change their built-in data security, data encryption or access.”

If the government prevails, it could also be problematic for companies that rely on data transfers between the U.S. and the European Union, he says. “If we start weakening encryptions and data security, [the E.U.] will have concerns about our technical framework. I believe they will start to prevent the transfer of data from the E.U. to the U.S.” That means an immediate impact for any U.S.-based internet business with clients in Europe, as well as the many companies with data centers there, he notes.

Apple’s ‘no’ is good business

Setting aside for a moment the substance of the argument, Apple’s response is a smart move because it embraces how the company is different from its competition, according to Wired: “Apple has been trying to position itself as a protector of privacy, a kind of anti-Google, since long before the FBI’s court order,” Wired reports. For example, Apple has repeatedly said that it has no way of decrypting messages sent through iMessage, and wants to keep it that way. That’s in contrast with Google, whose model incentivizes it to gather as much data about customers as possible, Wired says.

But while Apple’s stance might be good business, does the outcome of the confrontation truly make a difference for iPhone users?

“Leading technology companies such as Apple and Google have been progressively increasing the security built into their products for consumer protection reasons. …The FBI’s demands, if granted, would damage these consumer protection efforts,” says Andrea Matwyshyn, a professor at Northeastern University’s School of Law, in an interview with News @ Northeastern. Creating a tool to break encryption on an iPhone would place consumers at increased risk of having their personal information compromised, especially considering high-profile data breaches suffered by federal agencies in the past few years, Matwyshyn goes on to say.

And, while the FBI has said it only wants Apple to create a specific tool to hack into this one iPhone, Mashable has obtained court records showing that the FBI has in fact asked Apple to unlock more than a dozen phones just in the past five months.

Will Congress step in?

The impasse between Apple and law enforcement certainly has put pressure on Congress to legislate on the matter, as Bloomberg Politics points out. Apple has said it would prefer a congressional resolution, and several senators and representatives also have indicated that they think the matter should be considered on Capitol Hill.

“I think if this is left at the district court level, it will be decided in favor of the government,” says Regard. “I think it’s appropriate for our country to decide what direction we want to go into, and this issue is not going to be fully resolved until it’s legislated.”

It certainly doesn’t look as though Apple plans to give in to the FBI’s demands any time soon.

Tina Irgang is the production editor for SmartCEO. Contact her at