Federal Judge Orders Apple To Break Encryption On San Bernardino Gunman's iPhone Setting Groundbreaking Legal Precedent

We can’t say that we didn’t see this one coming — an encryption showdown between Apple and the federal government. Apple has been adamant about batting down court orders to decrypt data on iPhones in order to assist criminal investigations, in an effort to generally protect user privacy. In turn, the FBI and other agencies have repeatedly criticized Apple for its stonewalling.

Last week, FBI Director James Comey lamented the fact that his elite team of hackers still hadn’t been able to access the data on the smartphone belonging to the San Bernardino gunman that killed 14 people in early December. "It's been over two months now. We are still working on it,” said Comey last week before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

It looks as though Comey may getting some help from a federal judge, who has officially ordered Apple to provide investigators with a way to access the data on the gunman's smartphone, which we now know to be an iPhone 5c. Apple declined to voluntarily provide access to the smartphone in question, so the judge ruled this afternoon that Apple must offer “reasonable technical assistance” to the agencies that are trying to ascertain who Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik were conspiring with before they went on their murderous rampage on December 2nd.

iphone 5c

Among other things, the judge is asking Apple to provide investigators with an effective security “Konami code” to unlock the iPhone 5c, therefore bypassing the auto-erase functionality that wipes the phone clean after a certain number of failed login attempts.

The judge has given Apple five days to respond to the order if the tech giant determines the request to be “unreasonably burdensome.” Needless to say, given CEO Tim Cook’s staunch opposition to cracking encryption or giving backdoors to law enforcement, we have the feeling that Apple will respond in short order.

For her part, U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker championed the ruling and called it an “important step” towards providing the victims’ families with some answers after such a senseless tragedy. "We have made a solemn commitment to the victims and their families that we will leave no stone unturned as we gather as much information and evidence as possible,” said Decker. “These victims and families deserve nothing less.” 

Not many would argue that, in this case, there's obviously good reason to crack the data on this particular iPhone. However, the obvious legal precedent being set is a more than slippery slope for consumer privacy in general.