FBI–Apple encryption dispute

The FBI–Apple encryption dispute concerns whether and to what extent courts in the United States can compel manufacturers to assist in unlocking cell phones whose contents are cryptographically protected. There is much debate over public access to strong encryption.

In 2015 and 2016, Apple Inc. has received and objected to or challenged at least 11 orders issued by United States district courts under the All Writs Act of 1789. Most of these seek to compel Apple “to use its existing capabilities to extract data like contacts, photos and calls from locked iPhones running on operating systems iOS 7 and older” in order to assist in criminal investigations and prosecutions. A few requests, however, involve phones with more extensive security protections, which Apple has no current ability to break. These orders would compel Apple to write new software that would let the government bypass these device’s security and unlock the phones.

The most well-known instance of the latter category was a February 2016 court case in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. The FBI wanted Apple to create and electronically sign new software that would enable the FBI to unlock a work-issued iPhone 5C it recovered from one of the shooters in a December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people and injured 22. The two attackers later died in a shootout with police, having first destroyed their personal phones. The work phone was recovered intact but was locked with a four-digit password and was set to eliminate all its data after ten failed password attempts. Apple declined to create the software, and a hearing was scheduled for March 22. However, a day before the hearing was supposed to happen, the government obtained a delay, saying they had found a third party able to assist in unlocking the iPhone and, on March 28, it announced that the FBI had unlocked the iPhone and withdrew its request.

In another case in Brooklyn, a magistrate judge ruled that the All Writs Act could not be used to compel Apple to unlock an iPhone. The government appealed the ruling, but then dropped the case on April 22 after it was given the correct passcode.

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