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Apple To Fight Court Order To Break Into San Bernardino Shooter's iPhone


Apple prides itself on being a standard-bearer on security and encryption and on protecting customers' privacy. That position has put it on a collision course with law enforcement. Last night, a federal judge in California ordered Apple to help the Justice Department break into an iPhone that was used by a suspect in a mass shooting. Apple is fighting the order. It claims that unlocking the phone would provide a key for the government and others to break into millions of phones. NPR's Laura Sydell begins our coverage.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: The phone in question belonged to Syed Farook, a suspect in an attack last December at the San Bernardino County Department of Public health which killed 14 people. Officials say Farook and his wife, who's also a suspect, were motivated by violent jihadist ideology. Both were killed in a gunfight with police. Authorities confiscated Farook's iPhone which is owned by his employer, but it had a password created by Farook. If the FBI tries to guess the password, Apple's security system will erase everything on the phone after more than 10 tries, so the Justice Department has asked Apple to break into Farook's device.

MATTHEW GREEN: Potentially, that could make a lot of iPhones very insecure.

SYDELL: Matthew Green is a professor at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute. Green says federal authorities are asking Apple to create a software key that would have the potential to unlock millions of other phones.

GREEN: Apple has spent a lot of time and a lot of money building a system that is very secure for their users, and I think what they're being asked to do now is essentially undo all of those protections, write software that undoes all those protections.

SYDELL: Green's assessment of the situation echoes the statement that Apple CEO Tim Cook posted on the company's website explaining his reasons for challenging the court order. Cook contends that once Apple builds software that can break through its security, it will make it easier for hackers to follow. But not all security experts agree with that premise.

JOE DEMESY: The situation is a little more nuanced than a lot of the PR statements.

SYDELL: Joe DeMesy is with Bishop Fox, an IT consulting firm that works with banks and corporations. DeMesy believes Apple could find a way to break into Farook's phone without creating a key that would unlock other devices. Warning - a little technical jargon to follow.

DEMESY: Every iOS device contains a unique identifier called a UDID, or unique device identifier. And basically, you could design the tool to only allow the FBI to access the device with a specific UDID on it.

SYDELL: Even so, DeMesy thinks there are other reasons that Apple is resisting the government's efforts to get into Farook's phone - among them, growing consumer concern about digital privacy.

DEMESY: As a consumer, you know, I want strong encryption on all of my devices, and I think that's important for everyone to have.

SYDELL: And there's also the reality that Apple sells most of its phones outside the U.S. Jonathan Zittrain says if Apple says yes to the U.S. government, it will make it harder to say no in countries with very different values. Zittrain is a cofounder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.

JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: Oh, I would imagine that other countries are watching this dispute with great interest.

SYDELL: And Zittrain says that the U.S. is trying to push Apple and other tech companies into building devices with a backdoor for government to gain access when there are important security reasons. But Apple, Google and other companies have come to believe that their customers want robust security and privacy, and they may see this as a good reason to push back hard against the government's demands. Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.