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The Slippery Slope of Creating an iPhone Backdoor

By Gregory Coutros

The FBI’s request that Apple provide an electronic backdoor into the iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooters is, on its face, a reasonable request. The government’s need to access the phone is undoubtedly important for national security so as to protect against terrorist attacks similar to the San Bernardino shooting. The problem is that by creating a backdoor into the iPhone a dangerous precedent is set and a powerful technological tool is created.

To put it bluntly, destroying something once created in cyberspace is nearly impossible.[1] The FBI argues that it is only requesting access to a single phone; the Bureau does not want or expect Apple to create a backdoor to all iPhones. However, Apple points out a flaw in the FBI’s argument that the process used to create the backdoor “. . . could be replicated. Thus, [the code] would not be truly destroyed.”[2] Meaning, that this code creating a backdoor could be recreated and applied to other mobile devices. This would completely eliminate any security measure the original operating system had in place for any phone that operates it.[3] The code used to create the backdoor would result in a sort of skeleton key floating around which could potentially be a major cyber security threat. However, because of the nature of the Intelligence world, the information on the phone could be more valuable than a potential cyber security threat against an aging Operating System.

Information in the Intelligence community is passed from agency to agency in a way that is designed to help piece together information to form a picture of what is happening.[4] For instance, the “. . . FBI can share information with . . . the CIA,” because one agency has information that the other needs.[5] This flow of information can easily be used to help create a clearer picture of a potential threat. By gaining access to the content, not just the metadata, of the San Bernardino shooter’s phone the FBI could potentially create a very clear picture for many different agencies as to how the attack was orchestrated and who else was involved.[6] By gaining this valuable information, the FBI and other agencies could work to prevent anything like the shooting from happening again. Unfortunately, the way in which it is being asked to be done can set a very dangerous precedent that impacts people’s privacy for the sake of potentially stopping a threat.[7]

This is now a fight that will be played out in court and will inevitably set a precedent for courts to follow on similar issues.[8] Currently, there is a Manhattan prosecutor waiting to learn how the iPhone case will play out because he currently has “175” locked iPhones he wants access to.[9] If the court finds that Apple is required to create this backdoor for the FBI, prosecutors around the country will begin to act in kind. Every prosecutor in the country who stumbles upon a cell phone in the possession of a suspect can request the content of the phone be provided simply by citing to the Apple case.[10] Even if there is no guarantee that the content on the phone is crucial to the case, the argument will be made that the potential of the threat exists as an attempt to justify the request.

Creating a back door is dangerous. It creates a slippery slope, both in the legal world and the technological one. Legally speaking, a precedent will be set that could make it very easy to access the content of a person’s phone impacting, and effectively changing, privacy rights with cell phones. Technologically speaking, a skeleton key will have been created that could potentially be used to access anything that runs the same operating system. No one would argue that trying to prevent another San Bernardino-type attack isn’t important; but is it important enough to allow for the creation of a skeleton key, or setting a dangerous precedent? It is truly a hard question to answer, and it is hard to say what answer would be correct.

[1] Chris Smith, An iPhone backdoor like the FBI wants is even more dangerous than you think, (Feb. 26, 2016),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Christina Sterbenz, Ex-FBI officials explain why the government wants Apple to provide access to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, (Feb. 22, 2016),

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Spencer Ackerman et al., FBI director admits Apple encryption case could set legal precedent, The Guardian (Feb. 25, 2016),

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] See Id.


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