Apple's iPhone SE won't help the FBI find criminals

The new entry-level iPhone will offer cash-strapped customers access to Apple's latest technology. But it won't offer access to the kinds of data the FBI says it needs.

Ian Sherr
Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
3 min read
Screenshot by Josh Miller/CNET

Apple's iPhone SE, introduced Monday, may not seem like much of a design or technology advance to phone fans. It's basically a contemporary iPhone in a smaller frame, adding the latest tech including a fingerprint sensor, fast chips, a high-resolution camera and the ability to make wireless payments with Apple Pay.

But the 4-inch iPhone SE, like its predecessors, does something Apple believes every modern device should do: protect users' privacy and security.

And for that reason, the new SE, which goes on sale later this month, won't do anything to ease Apple CEO Tim Cook's battle with the US Department of Justice and the FBI over phone security.

For the past month, the world's most valuable tech company and the world's most powerful government have been waging a battle in the courts and the media over whether Apple should be forced to help the FBI investigators hack into an iPhone 5C used by one of the terrorists who killed 14 people in the San Bernardino, California, mass shooting last year.

Like the iPhone 5C, the new iPhone SE includes Apple's encryption technology, which jumbles up information stored in the phone so that it can only be viewed with a passcode. The phone's powered by Apple's iOS 9 software, which includes a feature that automatically wipes out data stored on the phone if someone incorrectly enters the wrong passcode 10 times.

This software, which Apple said is running on more than 80 percent of all the active iPhones and iPads in the world, is at the heart of Cook's battle with the government. And since this new phone uses some of Apple's latest and most powerful processors, customers will be able to upgrade and run new versions of iOS for the next several years. That means any new security precautions Apple puts in place can be added to this model.

Watch this: Tim Cook: 'We will not shrink from this responsibility'

"Many, many customers have asked for this, and I think they're going to love it," Cook, said during a media event announcing the device at Apple's Cupertino, California, headquarters. He kicked off the event to applause by saying Apple never planned to face off with the government over its security, but that it isn't going to back down. "This is an issue that impacts all of us, and we will not shrink from this responsibility."

A spokesman for the Justice Department didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The tech world closely follows every move Apple makes. And with good reason: Every major new product it releases has reshaped the tech industry. The iPod upended the music industry, the iPhone changed the phone industry, the iPad helped popularize tablets.

Now tech companies are waiting to see how Apple deals with the US government in a showdown over privacy rights that affects them as well. Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon and Yahoo are among the more than 40 companies that have spoken out in support of Apple, and the overwhelming opinion of Silicon Valley is the government shouldn't be allowed to force Apple to help the FBI hack the terrorist's iPhone.

About half of America disagrees with them, including Donald Trump, the front-runner to become the Republican nominee for president of the United States. He's not only said Apple should help, but also encouraged a boycott of its products until it does.

The FBI, however, might approve of the fingerprint ID feature Apple is adding to the iPhone SE. The sensor could prove helpful if government investigators are able to retrieve a suspect's phone and compel that person to unlock it with their finger.

But that's likely small consolation to the government, which continues to argue that its investigators need access to these devices when national security is at stake. Apple and the FBI will meet in federal court tomorrow to argue over whether personal privacy and security or national security takes precedent.

See all the news from Apple's March 21 event.