Late 2015 saw tragedy in San Bernardino, California, as a gunman and his wife shot into a crowd, killing 14 and injuring 22, as well as marking one of the deadliest terror attacks since September 11th. The perpetrators were killed in a subsequent shootout with law enforcement, but the gunman’s iPhone was retrieved by authorities. Wishing to bypass the phone’s impermeable security features, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ordered Apple engineers to create a workaround so that the agency could access whatever crucial information may be on the terrorist’s device. Apple refused on the basis that they did not want to establish precedent for increasingly expansive government domain over personal digital data, even that of terrorists. A legal battle ensued and Apple was prepared to take the case to the supreme course, but it was eventually dropped after the FBI received assistance from an unnamed third party. The issue, however, still remains to be fought in the future over whether or not the government has the authority to access anyone’s digital data. With the explosive development of the world wide web and rapid implementation of smart devices in our society, information is increasingly being stored on “the cloud” rather than on physical documents, and being encrypted with technology more advanced than authorities can keep up with. Our government is inherently designed to work slowly, but the growth of technology is faster than ever, leaving regulatory measures lagging behind. At the moment, with our technologically ignorant federal government, consolidating regulations with the accelerating growth of technology will be impossible without infringing upon the rights of individual citizens. Although there are substantial arguments that granting the government domain over digital data would keep everyone safer, when we consider the consequences of legislation passed following other terror attacks like 9/11 and explore the philosophies of many experts within the tech field, we can see that the Federal Government is not currently qualified to regulate digital data due to an inherent knowledge gap with legislators regarding technological concepts.


On December 2, 2015 at 10:58 am, married couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik enter a banquet room in the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center armed with semi-automatic pistols, rifles, and a backpack of improvised explosives designed to remotely detonate. More than 100 shots were fired into a party of about 80, killing 14 and injuring 22 others. The couple were pursued for 4 hours after escaping and are killed by police in a shootout. This attack broke national headlines and swept the nation as the deadliest mass shooting in the country since Sandy Hook and the worst terrorist attack on homeland soil since September 11th.

In 2016, the following year, lawyers from the Obama Administration and Apple held tense discussions for several months regarding the iPhone of one of the shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook. The FBI wanted to access the phone to retrieve potentially crucial information regarding the recently committed terror attack and possibly future plans. The only problem was that the iPhone’s security features were designed to erase all onboard data after 10 failed attempts at the passcode. The Bureau turned to Apple and demanded a one-time backdoor workaround be provided for the government to bypass this security feature and essentially allow them unlimited tries at hacking into the phone. Apple refused, citing the ethics of handing over domain of personal data to the government and jeopardizing the privacy of many more Apple devices in the future. In a letter addressed to the public regarding the issue, Apple CEO Tim Cook said “The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”   President Barack Obama voiced his support for the FBI and their pursuit of security in a public appearance saying “If technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?”.

The issue became highly contentious at the time and had the potential to set incredible precedent as many police stations around the country eagerly observed, all in possession of hundreds of iPhones with potentially incriminating evidence to rapes, murders, or even future terrorist attacks locked away on them. If Apple could be forced to unlock Farook’s phone, who says it can’t unlock any other one if there is reason to believe it would benefit national security. Public opinion about the issue was controversial. Polls varied depending on who was participating in them. Polls taken primarily online with no scientific selection of participants were overwhelmingly in support of Apple refusing to unlock the phone, while a poll done by Pew Research using peer-reviewed methodology to obtain a representative sample of the American electorate churned out results slightly more in favor of the FBI and national security.

On February 16, 2016, amid heavy backlash from the majority of Americans, Apple CEO Tim Cook released a letter to the public titled “A Message to Our Customers” addressing the company’s stance on the order by the federal government. In the letter he reiterates Apple’s support for the victims of the horribly shooting and the company’s disdain for terrorism, but most importantly he maintains that even a one-time break into their encryption is far too dangerous for the future of cyber-security than the public is even aware of. Cook appeals to the consumer’s desire for privacy and security against a government that he believes is overstepping its boundaries with this order. He relates the situation to terms that the less technologically literate could understand– “In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”  Cook says in his letter, “Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.” The issue, in Cook’s eyes, is that the government is trying to extend its power far beyond its duty to serve and protect the people, largely because it does not yet fully grasp the implications of a digital “backdoor”. In an age where cellular networks and the storage of trillions of bytes of data on digital clouds are relatively new, a governmental body that is mostly out of touch with the latest technology may not be the most qualified to make a decision that could affect all smartphones in the country.

Americans are no stranger to reactive government overreach. In October of 2001, just a month after the horrifying terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, a bill known later as the PATRIOT ACT was introduced to congress. As a counterweight to the intense emotions and reactions directly after the event, the bill included several extreme measures for the sake of “protection”, including allowing warrants to be issued without probable cause, allowing private property to be searched with notifying the owner, and removing judicial authority to challenge unlawful searches. Sitting president George W. Bush labeled any opposition to the bill as being negligent to terrorist threats and the PATRIOT ACT passing the house by 357-66 votes and the senate by 98-1. Such radical legislation being passed with this much bipartisan support was, and still is, unprecedented, underlining the incredible sense of unity that the entire nation felt following the attacks. Despite all that, as the country began to run normally again and people started resenting each other again, support for the law that was just passed began to dwindle. When there was no longer a looming threat of another foreign attack, Americans began questioning why so many of their rights had been given up