In the aftermath of the tragic February 2016 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, technology and the law collided and brought about questions about public safety and personal privacy. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) needed to access the deceased gunman’s cell phone to retrieve what they deemed to be information vital to their investigation, and even national security.
In this incident, the gunman’s cell phone was owned by the organization he worked for, and was what is commonly referred to as a COPE device, or “Corporate Owned, Personally Enabled” device. Having already received the appropriate permission from the assailant’s employer, the FBI still faced another hurdle, the personal access code needed to unlock the device. The cell phone was an Apple iPhone, and built into its operating system is a virtual kill switch that would erase all data on the phone after ten failed login attempts.
The authorities went toe to toe with Apple, with the Feds arguing for public safety on the basis of the All Writs Act, and Apple seemingly arguing on behalf of consumer and personal privacy, asserting that the application of the All Writs Act was overreaching in this particular situation. Weeks after the initial maelstrom, the bitter dispute came to an abrupt end when the Department of Justice filed a report stating that they have accessed the data contained in the iPhone and would no longer need Apple’s assistance.
The abrupt end to the struggle between the FBI and Apple seems to have generated more questions than answers. It leaves the public guessing on how the Court would have resolved the matter if the tug of war continued. Maybe we’ll have to wait until another conflict raises the question of public safety vs. personal privacy, or maybe there are already writings on the wall…