A 2015 court case shows that the tech giant has been willing to play ball with the government before—and is only stopping now because it might ‘tarnish the Apple brand.’
Apple CEO Tim Cook declared on Wednesday that his company wouldn’t comply with a government search warrant to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino killers, a significant escalation in a long-running debate between technology companies and the government over access to people’s electronically-stored private information.
But in a similar case in New York last year, Apple acknowledged that it could extract such data if it wanted to. And according to prosecutors in that case, Apple has unlocked phones for authorities at least 70 times since 2008. (Apple doesn’t dispute this figure.)
In other words, Apple’s stance in the San Bernardino case may not be quite the principled defense that Cook claims it is. In fact, it may have as much to do with public relations as it does with warding off what Cook called “an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers.”
For its part, the government’s public position isn’t clear cut, either. U.S. officials insist that they cannot get past a security feature on the shooter’s iPhone that locks out anyone who doesn’t know its unique password—which even Apple doesn’t have. But in that New York case, a government attorney acknowledged that one U.S. law enforcement agency has already developed the technology to crack at least some iPhones, without the assistance from Apple that officials are demanding now.
The facts in the New York case, which involve a self-confessed methamphetamine dealer and not a notorious terrorist, tend to undermine some of the core claims being made by both Apple and the government in a dispute with profound implications for privacy and criminal investigations beyond the San Bernardino.
In New York, as in California, Apple is refusing to bypass the passcode feature now found on many iPhones.
But in a legal brief, Apple acknowledged that the phone in the meth case was running version 7 of the iPhone operating system, which means the company can access it. “For these devices, Apple has the technical ability to extract certain categories of unencrypted data from a passcode locked iOS device,” the company said in a court brief.
Whether the extraction would be successful depended on whether the phone was “in good working order,” Apple said, noting that the company hadn’t inspected the phone yet. But as a general matter, yes, Apple could crack the iPhone for the government. And, two technical experts told The Daily Beast, the company could do so with the phone used by deceased San Bernardino shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook, a model 5C. It was running version 9 of the operating system.
Still, Apple argued in the New York case, it shouldn’t have to, because “forcing Apple to extract data…absent clear legal authority to do so, could threaten the trust between Apple and its customers and substantially tarnish the Apple brand,” the company said, putting forth an argument that didn’t explain why it was willing to comply with court orders in other cases.
“This reputational harm could have a longer term economic impact beyond the mere cost of performing the single extraction at issue,” Apple said.
Apple’s argument in New York struck one former NSA lawyer as a telling admission: that its business reputation is now an essential factor in deciding whether to hand over customer information.
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