You might have heard by now (I did not) that the F.B.I. dropped its case against Apple a couple of days ago, claiming it had found a way to crack the San Bernadino’s shooter’s iPhone without the company’s help. The F.B.I. did not say how it had cracked the phone’s encryption (not that anyone would truly expect it to), but the Bureau’s silence on its successful method leaves open the possibility that it might not have had to crack the phone at all, that the data it wanted was already obtainable through the phone’s iCloud backup, and that the announcement of “success” in cracking the phone was just a way to back out of the lawsuit and save face at the same time.
As I suggested last month, everybody has a stake in the current debate over device encryption and who has the right to break that encryption under a given set of circumstances. Even though I am conservative enough to want to take a hard line in terrorist cases like the one in San Bernadino, the F.B.I.’s attempt to force Apple to break its own phone and thereby give the agency a method for doing so again in the future for unspecified reasons seemed to me a clear and dangerous overreach of its power. I am glad, and relieved, that the present issue has been resolved, but I am not so foolish as to think this is the last we’ll hear of law enforcement clashing with tech companies over encryption. On the contrary, what we have seen is just the first case in what will be a long line of cases to be resolved, both before and after Congress writes legislation to deal with the rights and responsibilities accorded to those businesses that can encrypt the products they sell.