In December 2015, the FBI attained the iPhone of one of the shooters in an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. As part of the investigation, the FBI attempted to gain access to the data stored on the phone but was unable to penetrate its encryption software. Lawyers for the Obama administration approached Apple for assistance with unlocking the device, but negotiations soon broke down. The Justice Department then obtained a court order compelling Apple to help the FBI unlock the phone. Apple CEO, Timothy Cook, publicly challenged the court in an open letter, sparking an intense debate over the balance between maintaining national security and protecting user privacy.
Apple and its supporters, including top technology companies such as Google and Facebook, made the case on several fronts that the court order threatened the privacy of all individuals. First, according to Apple, the order effectively required the company to write code, violating its First Amendment right to free speech by forcing the company to “say” something it did not want to say. Previous court cases had already established computer code as legally protected speech. Second, such a backdoor, once created, could fall into the wrong hands and threaten the privacy of all iPhone owners. Finally, it would set a dangerous precedent; law enforcement could repeatedly require businesses such as Apple to assist in criminal investigations, effectively making technology companies an agent of government.
Representatives from both sides of the political aisle offered several arguments in favor of the Justice Department’s efforts and against Apple’s stance. Their central claim was that the U.S. legal system establishes constraints on the government’s access to private information which prevent abuse of search and surveillance powers. At the same time, the law still allows authorities to gain access to information that facilitates prevention and prosecution of criminal activities, from terrorism to drug trafficking to child pornography. Critics of Apple also rejected the slippery slope argument on the grounds that, if Apple cooperated, it could safeguard the code it created and keep it out of the hands of others, including bad actors such as terrorists or criminal groups. Moreover, Apple was accused of being too interested in protecting its brand, and even unpatriotic for refusing to comply with the court order.
Ultimately, the FBI dropped the case because it was able to circumvent the encryption on the iPhone without Apple’s help.