The Conscription of Apple Engineers into Government Service

Before this week, I had never heard of the All Writs Act of 1789. As I understand from the news accounts I have read this week, a Federal Magistrate cites it as authority to order Apple to develop software that law enforcement can then use to break into an iPhone. For anyone who’s ever dealt with this on their phone, here’s what happens. If you try repeatedly to enter the password to unlock an iPhone, successive unsuccessful attempts result in a delay. So, you can’t try to log in for a set period of time, which increases with each attempt. Eventually, try enough times, and the iPhone wipes out all of the contents. This protects iPhone owners from a brute force attack or a program that tries random characters until it reaches the right combination.

In an open letter, Apple CEO Tim Cook has explained that it complies with court orders and subpoenas to provide materials in its possession.

However, the password to the evidentiary phone at issue is not in Apple’s possession. The phone is not in Apple’s possession. It cannot provide material it lacks. Until this week, I would have thought that this would be the end of the story. But alas no. A Federal Magistrate Judge has ordered Apple to create software that would unlock the encryption on this phone and provide that software to the government.

I’m new to the All Writs Act of 1789, but this seems, at first blush, like complete lunacy:

  • It seems odd to me that the government could conscript software engineers to code up anything and give that code to the government. This feels like indentured servitude.
  • It’s a bit unsettling that the argument from the government is, “make this software for us and give it to us. We’ll just use it for this one special case. Trust us. We’re the government.”
  • It’s only a matter of time before this software, once created, gets into the hands of bad guys or bad governments.

Maybe I’m missing something here. And I’m open to having my mind changed. But this sounds dangerous.

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