It's been a little over a month since a federal judge ordered Apple to break the encryption on a San Bernardino terrorist's iPhone, and to call those ~30 days "action-packed" would be an understatement. Just earlier, we learned that the FBI isn't even concerned about contradicting itself: it argues for improved vehicle security at the same time it wants to cripple the iPhone's security.
Now, we learn of another interesting development: if the FBI is successful in forcing Apple to sculpt an OS around its rules, or introduce a backdoor at all into iOS, engineers are going to walk. The New York Times reports that "more than" half a dozen engineers would leave their high-paying jobs at Apple to avoid what's in effect a serious conflict in interest. Security engineers aim to create the most impenetrable security, not create the most impenetrable security and then deliberately weaken it. Marc Rotenberg, an executive director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, equates this scenario to a doctor being asked to administer a lethal drug.
Three specific engineers (without names) have been pegged as willing to leave if the FBI is successful. One of these has been an engineer for quite some time, having been involved in the development of the iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV. Another is an expert bug-finder, who's tested the ins and outs of Apple's products dating back to the original iPod. A third engineer handles security architecture for iOS and OS X. Suffice to say, these sound like pretty important people, and if they were to leave, it'd immediately cripple this sort of operation. If more joined them in departing, it'd make Apple's - and the FBI's - situation far more complicated.
Could Apple engineers really walk away from what's sure to be a great paycheck? They certainly can when other companies admire their ethics. They already have the talent, so it shouldn't be too hard for any one of these engineers to be plucked by another company.
It remains to be seen if the departure of these engineers could ultimately steer this case in one direction or the other. If key software people drop out, that means Apple would suddenly need to scramble to find talent that can handle the workload, and that might not be a timely affair. But we must remember: this isn't only about the FBI's desire to get into the San Bernardino terrorist's phone; this is the FBI planting a seed for the future. Once it legally breaks the encryption on one phone, it's not going to be the last.