Apple engineers mull quitting if feds win iPhone battle

Some employees might stage their own type of civil disobedience rather than create a custom version of iOS needed to unlock an iPhone tied to the San Bernardino shootings.

Lance Whitney
Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
3 min read

What would Apple engineers do when faced with an order to decrypt an iPhone?

James Martin/CNET

First, the US government needs to get a court to compel Apple to make an end run around iPhone security. Then it may have to figure what to do if key engineers quit the company.

The Justice Department has been pressing Apple to create custom software that would give it access to the contents of an iPhone 5C tied to Syed Farook, one of the two shooters in the San Bernardino, California, massacre in December, in which 14 people were killed. Apple has been fiercely resisting, arguing that the result would be a "backdoor" that would undermine privacy and security in all iPhones.

A court hearing on Tuesday will be a key step in what's likely to be a long road still toward resolving the legal dispute.

If the government eventually prevails, it may then run into another significant roadblock: the potential departure of Apple engineers skilled in the ways of encryption, the technology that scrambles documents so that they can be read only by authorized people or devices.

Apple employees have already discussed what they would do if Apple is ordered to comply, The New York Times reported Friday, citing interviews with than a half-dozen current and former Apple workers. Some employees said they would "balk" at the work, but others have indicated that they might quit their jobs rather than weaken the very software they built.

The standoff between Apple and the government has been a vivid reminder of the the larger tension between individual privacy and national security. Apple and others in the technology sector believe that encryption is vital to protect personal information and communications. The FBI and law enforcement officials say the technology obstructs their ability to investigate and combat criminal and terrorist activity.

Though Apple and the FBI will argue their positions in federal court in Riverside, California, on March 22, the case is likely to drag on, possibly going as far as the Supreme Court. The US Congress may also weigh in with proposals of its own on balancing security and privacy when it comes to the devices used everyday by millions of people and businesses.

In a court filing from late February, Apple said that it would take 6 to 10 engineers as long as a month to create what's being dubbed "GovtOS," the custom version of iOS that would allow the FBI to access data from the iPhone in question. That's assuming, of course, that the knowledgeable people stay in place at Apple, a highly compartmentalized and secretive workplace where specific knowledge is not widely shared.

What might be the government's response if all the necessary employees resisted?

"If -- and this is a big if -- every engineer at Apple who could write the code quit and, also a big if, Apple could demonstrate that this happened to the court's satisfaction, then Apple could not comply and would not have to," Joseph DeMarco, a former federal prosecutor, told the Times.

However, if the employees remained at Apple and simply refused to perform the task, the court could find Apple in contempt, DeMarco added.

Apple did not immediately respond to CNET's request for comment.