By Jonathan Vanian
February 20, 2016

This is Jonathan Vanian, filling in for Robert Hackett while he is off.

The battle between the public and private sector over encryption technology kicked into warp speed this week.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Riverside, California ordered Apple to build a custom version of its iOS operating system that can be installed into the iPhone of one of the shooters responsible for the December rampage killings in San Bernardino.

Because the data inside the shooter’s iPhone is encrypted, the FBI can’t simply retrieve the information it wants from the device’s memory chips. Instead, it needs the device to be unlocked with the appropriate PIN number.

However, Apple’s tough iPhone security measures make the process of guessing the phone’s PIN number a risky business. If the FBI enters the wrong PIN number too many times, the phone will permanently delete the stored data.

A special version of the iPhone operating system that would either bypass or remove that data-deletion feature would presumably make it easier for the FBI to crack the PIN number without fearing a total data wipeout.

Apple CEO Tim Cook was displeased with the court order and wrote a letter to customers in which he said the custom operating system is “too dangerous to create” because it circumvents the company’s security features.

Cook claims that the government is asking Apple to weaken the measures it takes to encrypt its data. To create the custom software would set a bad precedent that “would hurt only the well-meaning and law-abiding citizens who rely on companies like Apple to protect their data.”

That’s balderdash, the Department of Justice responded in the form of a court motion. The DOJ claimed that it won’t “require Apple to create or provide a ‘back door’ to every iPhone.” Apple’s public stance on the issue is only a “public brand marketing strategy.”

Now, representatives of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have invited Cook and FBI Director James Comey to appear at a yet-to-be-scheduled hearing to discuss encryption, a topic that will almost certainly be debated during the upcoming presidential elections. Additionally, the House Judiciary Committee reportedly asked Apple officials to testify at a similar hearing on March 1.

This chain of events presents a perfect storm to bring the topic of encryption to the public stage.

You have the world’s most valuable company, the U.S.’s leading criminal investigation and enforcement agency, and the controversial issues of terrorism, national security, and data privacy all intermingling.

Over the past few years, the topic of whether companies should ease up on encryption seemed to be of interest to only those deeply involved in the issue. Occasionally, there would be a mainstream news report on the issue. But generally speaking, the topic seemed to be of concern primarily to insiders or security conference attendees.

This time, considering the powerful players involved and its relation to a terrorist attack, the topic of encryption might stick around in the public forum.


Jonathan Vanian


Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett is off for the week. You can reach him via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber, PGP encrypted email, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.


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