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Here’s Why the FBI Went After Apple When It Did

A crest of the Federal Bureau of InvestiA crest of the Federal Bureau of Investi
A crest of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.Photograph by Mandel Ngan—AFP

J. Edgar Hoover was a master at this game. The legendary FBI director would latch on to the latest boogeyman—the Lindbergh kidnapper, a big-name gangster, Nazi spies, Communists—and leverage the press coverage to extract more money from Congress for his growing crime-fighting enterprise.

Forgive me if I see shades of J. Edgar in the FBI’s latest budget request, submitted to Congress exactly one week before a terrorist’s iPhone became front page news.

There are hundreds of iPhones in police custody that the FBI can’t crack, but it’s not hard to see why the Department of Justice chose to make a federal case out of this one.

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Here’s the sequence of events:

  • December 2, 2015: Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik perpetrate the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, leaving behind a locked iPhone the FBI can’t crack.
  • January 13: Apple’s hardened security measures come up at a Washington summit on strong crypto, CEO Tim Cook and Attorney General Loretta Lynch clash over “back doors.” Harsh words and warnings are exchanged.
  • February 9: Lynch requests an extra $38 million to help the FBI development workarounds on data encryption, bringing the total budget of what it calls “project Going Dark” to $69 million.
  • February 16: The DOJ takes Apple to court. Tim Cook responds, drawing a line in the sand.

There is much that I find duplicitous in the Justice’s Department’s latest brief in the case: That the FBI is only interested in this iPhone, no others. That creating a new version of iOS wouldn’t take much effort. That what they’re asking for is not a back door. That larger issues of privacy are not at stake.

But what I find particularly hypocritical is the DOJ’s suggestion that Apple (AAPL) is only concerned about its “business model” and “public brand marketing strategy.”

The FBI has a business model too. And with $38.3 million at stake, it knows a thing or two about public brand marketing.

For more on Apple vs. FBI, watch this video:

For a dose of sanity, I recommend James Allworth’s The U.S. has Gone F&*%ing Mad, See especially the chart that compares American gun deaths vs. terror deaths, 2004 to 2013.