Editorial Board

Unlock That iPhone, Apple

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

No one will ever know what was going on inside the head of one of the terrorists who went on a deadly rampage late last year in San Bernardino, California, killing 14. But FBI investigators would like to know what was going on inside his iPhone -- and Apple should do more to help them.

A federal judge has ordered Apple to assist the agency in getting access to Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone 5c, arguing that it probably contains information critical to the investigation. Apple calls this government overreach and is preparing for a fight.

On the surface, the court order is fairly straightforward. The Justice Department has a warrant to search the phone, and the data in question could be crucial: It could include messages, photographs and contacts that might show whether Farook was connected to a larger terrorist network or was planning further attacks.

But Farook’s phone has a security feature that automatically clears its data after 10 incorrect attempts at entering a password. The FBI wants Apple to create a customized version of its operating system to circumvent the security feature and allow its agents to try as many password combinations as it takes to gain access.

Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook sees this request more ominously: The government, he wrote in a message posted on the company’s website, has “asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

But this wouldn’t be a backdoor because it wouldn’t be built into Apple’s products -- a deliberate weakness that hackers might hope to exploit. It would be a technique for opening the phone over which Apple would retain sole control, subject to court order. In fact, the order says the software need never leave the company’s campus.

It’s hardly unusual for the government to ask a company for assistance when one of its products is used in a crime. Gun purveyors are enlisted in murder investigations, telecoms must cooperate with wiretaps, banks spend more hours and dollars preventing money laundering than you’d imagine. Everyone has their orders.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.