Last Dec. 2 in San Bernardino, 14 people were killed by Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who subsequently were killed by police. They had an Apple iPhone 5C, and the FBI wants to know what's on that phone.

The phone is locked by a passcode, and if you enter the wrong code 10 times, the phone will be wiped. The FBI asked Apple for help — it's not just an encryption problem but a design problem; the security is baked into the design of the hardware and the software. The company refused to help, so the FBI is using a 1789 law called the All Writs Act, which basically lets a judge issue “all writs necessary” to do something that might not be covered by existing laws, to force Apple to help the agency bust the passcode on the phone.

Apple is having none of it. The company designed the software on the phone to make it impossible for anyone — even Apple itself — to get inside a phone without the passcode. This design sets the company apart from competitors who want to know everything and mine everybody’s data. Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke at a conference last fall and is quoted in Fast Company:

Privacy is a key value of our company. We think it will become increasingly important to more and more people over time as they realize that intimate parts of their lives are in the open and being used for all kinds of things… What we’ve said is that one of the key tenets that we feel very strongly about is that you can’t have a backdoor in the software, Because you can’t have a backdoor that’s only for the good guys. Any backdoor is something the bad guys can exploit.

Now that the FBI has called in the judge, Cook has taken a loud and public stance in fighting the writs. In a long public letter, he writes about the government demands:

Specifically, 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.The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.

He calls it a dangerous precedent:

The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data.The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge. Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.


Apple may well lose some business over this. Many people are claiming that the company is “building phones for terrorists.”


Others, like Chris Mims of the Wall Street Journal, see a strong, principled position that takes real guts.


And others note that Apple is an international company and that if this backdoor was built in for the FBI, where does it stop? If the security is baked into the hardware and the software, it’s very difficult for anyone in any country to get into it without Apple’s assistance — and the company is very loudly refusing to give that help.

Opinions about this are all over the map. Donald Trump wonders “To think that Apple won’t allow us to get into her cellphone? Who do they think they are?” Yet the American Enterprise Institute, not exactly a hotbed of left-wingers, says Apple is right to fight encryption court order as Congress dithers.

It will be interesting to see whether Apple loses customers because of this or gains them. Some are calling this Cook’s defining moment, while others are accusing him of supporting terrorists. But it's such an important issue and one has to ask, what’s reasonable and right?

The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.

This is indeed a defining moment, not just for Americans but for people around the world. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, “Once this master key is created, governments around the world will surely demand that Apple undermine the security of their citizens as well.” Indeed, this is much bigger than the question of what's on the phone belonging to two dead terrorists; it's about the right to privacy of people everywhere, in democracies and dictatorships alike.

And right now the technology doesn’t exist to do it. Apple would have to write a new operating system. It will be interesting to see if the company can be forced to do that. There are people all over the world, with fewer protections and rights than Americans have, who are probably praying that won't happen.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.