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Apple Vs. The FBI: What's At Stake

Apple's struggle with the FBI will be remembered as a pivotal tug-of-war between personal privacy and public security.

The mass shooting in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015 was the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. Nobody could have known at the time that the event would set the stage for a major battle between the government and the tech community over consumer data privacy and national security.

The FBI won a February 16 court order demanding that Apple help it unlock the iPhone 5c of one of the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Farook. The FBI believes it might find information on the device connecting the shooters with larger terrorist organizations in the Middle East.

Apple has refused to help, fearing that the custom firmware it would have to create to disable security features on Farook’s phone, once made, would be impossible to secure and would eventually be used by bad actors to break into other iPhones. The company's real fear, however, may be that the current order to build custom software may pave the way for hundreds of similar requests.

Apple has complied with many other court orders to help law enforcement access crucial user information, but such orders are typically left under seal and out of the public eye. Not so this time. The Justice Department has for a long time tried to persuade Congress to push legislation guaranteeing it a "back door" to access encrypted user data maintained by tech companies that might be valuable in investigations.

Some experts believe the DOJ hopes the San Bernardino matter will provide a sympathetic public showcase for its back-door campaign—one that might eventually move Congress to enact a law. Such a law would require tech companies to maintain a back door to encrypted user data, and provide it to law enforcement agencies with an appropriate court order.

The result of that political battle could mean a rebalancing of two of the values Americans hold most dear—personal privacy and national security. If Congress doesn’t intervene, and neither the FBI nor Apple back down, the matter could move through the court system and eventually arrive at the Supreme Court. KC Ifeanyi sits down with senior writer Mark Sullivan to discuss the greater implications of Apple vs The FBI, and why we should all care. Click the video above to watch the interview, then let us know you're opinion on Twitter with #29thFloor.

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