Connectivity

The FBI Pauses Its Legal Assault on Apple—But the War on Encryption Will Continue

Even if Apple isn’t forced to help the FBI break iPhone security, it cannot escape the broader conflict over encryption technology.

Apple may be about to escape its legal battle with the FBI over whether it must help terrorism investigators hindered by the iPhone’s encryption software.

The FBI moved Monday to pause legal proceedings aimed at forcing Apple to help unlock an iPhone used in December’s shootings in San Bernardino, California. The FBI said in a court document that someone had shown the agency a way to break into the iPhone without Apple’s help. If that hacking trick works, the case will be dropped.

That might seem like good news for Apple and other tech companies, which have complained that the FBI’s case would set a precedent that forced U.S. companies to weaken their security. But even if the FBI does end this battle with Apple, the company will have plenty to worry about. The FBI won't be able to keep using the flaw that got it into this particular phone indefinitely, because Apple must race to fix it to avoid it being exploited by criminals. And the conflict between tech companies and governments will continue.

The FBI and other law enforcement agencies, including local police forces, have become used to issuing warrants or less formal requests to tech companies to get access to evidence inside locked phones or digital messages. But Apple, Google, Facebook, and others have lately improved the security of their mobile software and messaging systems, making it impossible for the companies to help with some requests that would previously have been fulfilled. Investigators claim they are being unfairly impeded in their work.

Apple argues that this actually shows consumers are safer than ever. It is impossible to create ways for law enforcement to pierce encryption without harming our security, say the company and its many backers, which include tech industry leaders and security experts.

People from the world of government and law enforcement generally don’t buy that. They often argue that the conflict can be resolved by somehow creating what Apple says is impossible: a modification to encryption technology that would let investigators access the data stored on, say, a smartphone, but still provide a level of security that’s acceptable to society.

Even if the FBI does manage to hack its way into the San Bernardino iPhone, as it now hopes to do on its own, that fundamental disconnect will still exist and complaints from law enforcement will continue to pile up. Eventually, legislative action seems likely. France and the U.K. have already moved to lay down strict new rules on tech companies, and their politicians have engaged with the encryption “problem” in similar ways to those in the U.S.