The Department of Justice is currently attempting to force Apple to decrypt data stored on a defendant’s iPhone for evidence. The user’s phone is protected by password lock, and encryption has prevented any potential evidence from being revealed. Apple is fighting back, saying that the execution of performing the decryption could be excessively burdensome for the company and could “tarnish the Apple brand.”
Apple has performed multiple password bypasses for law enforcement in the past on devices that are pre-iOS 8. Apple is arguing that multiple requests (without quantification) for bypassing device encryption for law enforcement will create an undue burden on the company, and that additional expenses may be incurred if company employees are required to testify in any court case. In this case, United States V. Jun Feng, the DOJ is requesting that Apple decrypt a device running on iOS 7. Apple has confirmed the contents of the defendant’s phone were not backed up on iCloud, and that the device also had a remote wipe request pending that would wipe everything from the device if it were connected to a network and powered on. If the remote wipe were to take place, the encryption keys would be destroyed and the data would be impossible to decrypt.
Because of the pending remote wipe, Apple doesn’t have the technical capability to perform the decryption, and also argues that the company should not be required to do so. By objecting to obligations to perform such services for the DOJ, Apple took a stance towards protecting user privacy and personal data.
A new filing from the DOJ is currently trying to force Apple to attempt to decrypt the data on the phone, arguing that because Apple licenses its software instead of selling it, the government can demand assistance from the company in legal cases. Should the DOJ win, precedent could be established, which would require almost any commercial software vendor to provide assistance to the DOJ for legal cases. Should the DOJ win, companies that license any type of software could be required to act as agents of the state. Licensed software extends to things like cars, household appliances, electronic door locks, and many other things.
Precedence in this case could cause additional problems for Bitcoin users with encrypted funds. Should the DOJ win, Bitcoin users using third-party applications that require user agreements would be required to decrypt user funds (if possible) and help the Government acquire digital currency assets.
United States V. Jun Feng will likely be a case which will shape the way companies with licensed software will have to act. Should precedence be established in favor of the DOJ, companies will likely think twice about licensing software for fear of excessive obligation to serve as agents of the state.
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