The government’s attempt to get Apple to build a bespoke operating system so they can brute force access to an iPhone without it erasing its data has led the media to some of us who were in the first round of the crypto wars. Today was my turn. A few seconds on CBS in the Morning, ink in a nice explainer by Steve Lohr in the New York Times. I also spoke to the LA Times and the Wall St. Journal, but I haven’t seen what if anything they made of it.
I presume they found me because I wrote the first US legal article on law and encryption: The Metaphor is the Key: Cryptography, the Clipper Chip and the Constitution. There’s also a shorter sequel that some find easier to read, It Came From Planet Clipper.
The Apple case potentially raises at least these major legal issues:
- To what extent the government can use the All Writs Act to compel people unrelated to a case to provide unwilling technical support–here, Apple says, 12-40 man-weeks of expert engineering–to the government’s efforts to disable a security system in order to effectuate a search warrant or similar court order;
- Whether ordering a firm to write code (here, a bespoke phone OS), is a form of compelled speech violating the First Amendment
- Whether ordering a firm to digitally sign that code (or anything else) is an impermissible form of compelled speech
- Whether if a court can issue this order requiring assistance to disable a security system without violating the Constitutions, it follows that Congress could also legislate to forbid people from building strong security systems that the government cannot break into unassisted — and, most critically, whether that would mean the government could forbid the deployment of strong cryptographic tools without back doors. (This last issue was the main subject of the two articles I linked to above. It’s not a simple question.)
Although the Apple issue likely will be decided on non-constitutional grounds, the parties are making a record on the constitutional issues with an eye to a set of appeals that could go as far as the Supreme Court. The issues are important and interesting, so the media is right to treat this as a big deal.