A for Apple

Gina Chon

A U.S. court order to unlock an iPhone looks like pure Apple sauce. The ruling on Tuesday requires the technology giant to help the FBI hack into a mobile device owned by one of the shooters who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California last December. Law-enforcement and national-security concerns are obviously important. Protecting privacy is critical, though, especially since China and other countries may now seek similar backdoor access to smartphones.

David Mareuil | Andolu Agency | Getty Images

The FBI wants the company to eliminate one of the iPhone's most compelling features: The ability to block access to anyone – including Apple – other than the owner. While the agency says it only aims to unlock the one device, Chief Executive Tim Cook stressed in an open letter opposing the order that it would set a frightening precedent. It's not hard to see the government demanding, for example, that the company and other smartphone manufacturers create software allowing officials to intercept messages.

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The FBI's legal position seems flimsy. It's based on the All Writs Act of 1789, a fuzzy law that permits courts to issue orders that boost their legal jurisdiction. Prosecutors have relied on it in a few cases to crack into mobile devices. There's little precedent, however, and at least one court has ruled that the act doesn't offer justification for unlocking a smartphone.

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The government denies that it wants unlimited access, and it has a point. The threat from criminals and terrorists can't be taken lightly, and mobile-phone security features can make it a lot harder to get information and prevent future attacks. There are, however, plenty of ways to gather evidence other than breaking into a smartphone.

What's more, the order against Apple may encourage China to redouble its efforts to access devices used within its borders. The nation has argued for years that foreign manufacturers should build in electronic keys to unlock encrypted information. In December, it enacted a law requiring companies to help bypass encryption in terrorism cases.

The upside of the Apple case is that it draws attention to the issue. Ultimately, though, Congress rather than one judge should determine what is and isn't allowed. Until then, Apple deserves an A for biting back.

FBI released photos of the San Bernardino mass shooters Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.
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Commentary by Gina Chon of Reuters Breakingviews.

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