The Federal Government Wants Your iPhone Passcode: What Does the Law Say?

Tim Joyce, MJLST Staffer

Three months ago, when MJLST Editor Steven Groschen laid out the arguments for and against a proposed New York State law that would require “manufacturers and operating system designers to create backdoors into encrypted cellphones,” the government hadn’t even filed its motion to compel against Apple. Now, just a few weeks after the government quietly stopped pressing the issue, it almost seems as if nothing at all has changed. But, while the dispute at bar may have been rendered moot, it’s obvious that the fight over the proper extent of data privacy rights continues to simmer just below the surface.

For those unfamiliar with the controversy, what follows are the high-level bullet points. Armed attackers opened fire on a group of government employees in San Bernardino, CA on the morning of December 2, 2015. The attackers fled the scene, but were killed in a shootout with police later that afternoon. Investigators opened a terrorism investigation, which eventually led to a locked iPhone 5c. When investigators failed to unlock the phone, they sought Apple’s help, first politely, and then more forcefully via California and Federal courts.

The request was for Apple to create an authenticated version of its iOS operating system which would enable the FBI to access the stored data on the phone. In essence, the government asked Apple to create a universal hack for any iPhone operating that particular version of iOS. As might be predicted, Apple was less than inclined to help crack its own encryption software. CEO Tim Cook ran up the banner of digital privacy rights, and re-ignited a heated debate over the proper scope of government’s ability to regulate encryption practices.

Legal chest-pounding ensued.

That was the situation until March 28, when the government quietly stopped pursuing this part of the investigation. In its own words, the government informed the court that it “…ha[d] now successfully accessed the data stored on [the gunman]’s iPhone and therefore no longer require[d] the assistance from Apple Inc…”. Apparently, some independent governmental contractor (read: legalized hacker) had done in just a few days what the government had been claiming from the start was impossible without Apple’s help. Mission accomplished – so, the end?

Hardly.

While this one incident, for this one iPhone (the iOS version is only applicable to iPhone 5c’s, not any other model like the iPhone 6), may be history, many more of the same or substantially similar disputes are still trickling through the courts nationwide. In fact, more than ten other federal iPhone cases have been filed since September 2015, and all this based on a 227 year old act of last resort. States like New York are also getting into the mix, even absent fully ratified legislation. Furthermore, it’s obvious that legislatures are taking this issue seriously (see NYS’s proposed bill, recently returned to committee).

Although he is only ⅔ a lawyer at this point, it seems to this author that there are at least three ways a court could handle a demand like this, if the case were allowed to go to the merits.

  1. Never OK to demand a hack – In this situation, the courts could find that our collective societal interests in privacy would always preclude enforcement of an order like this. Seems unlikely, especially given the demonstrated willingness in this case of a court to make the order in the first place.
  2. Always OK to demand a hack – Similar to option 1, this option seems unlikely as well, especially given the First and Fourth Amendments. Here, the courts would have to find some rationale to justify hacking in every circumstance. Clearly, the United States has not yet transitioned to Orwellian dystopia yet.
  3. Sometimes OK to demand a hack, but scrutiny – Here, in the middle, is where it seems likely we’ll find courts in the coming years. Obviously, convincing arguments exist on each side, and it seems possible reconcile infringing personal privacy and upholding national security with burdening a tech company’s policy of privacy protection, given the right set of facts. The San Bernardino shooting is not that case, though. The alleged terrorist threat has not been characterized as sufficiently imminent, and the FBI even admitted that cracking the cell phone was not integral to the case and they didn’t find anything anyway. It will take a (probably) much more scary scenario for this option to snap into focus as a workable compromise.

We’re left then with a nagging feeling that this isn’t the last public skirmish we’ll see between Apple and the “man.” As digital technology becomes ever more integrated into daily life, our legal landscape will have to evolve as well.
Interested in continuing the conversation? Leave a comment below. Just remember – if you do so on an iPhone 5c, draft at your own risk.

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