This editorial appeared in The Orange County Register.
The terrorist shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, shook all of us. But tragedy should not provide an automatic mandate for government to encroach upon the public's civil liberties.
On Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym ordered Apple to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to the FBI to help "bypass or disable" a security function on the iPhone used by one of the shooters. Apple, to its credit, has said it will fight this order.
Law enforcement officials have been unable to access data on the shooter's phone and hope to disable an iPhone security feature that automatically erases data after a certain number of incorrect password attempts.
This would allow law enforcement to run software that would try myriad passwords until the correct one is found.
It may be tempting to think that this case is so exceptional that it requires extraordinary cooperation from Apple.
Further, such cooperation ultimately would be innocuous to everyone else. After all, any workaround developed to help the FBI crack the shooter's password would only be used in this case, right?
"Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices," Apple CEO Tim Cook explained in a message to Apple customers. "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."
While it may seem harmless for a company like Apple to just cooperate and help the FBI crack a phone, there is a wide range of repercussions that needs to be considered. To date, governments have shown few reasons for confidence in their ability to respect electronic privacy and security. And, just as it would be wrongheaded and immoral to rush into blanket gun control laws or immigration restrictions in response to the massacre in San Bernardino, it also would be wrong to exploit a tragedy to undermine electronic security.