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Can This System of Unlocking Phones Crack the Crypto War?

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On December 2, 2015, a man named Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire on employees of the Department of Public Health in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people and injuring 22[1] during what was supposed to be a staff meeting and holiday celebration. The shooters were tracked down and killed later in the day, and FBI agents wasted no time trying to understand the motivations of Farook and to get the fullest possible sense of his contacts and his network. But there was a problem: Farook’s iPhone 5c was protected by Apple’s[2] default encryption system. Even when served with a warrant, Apple did not have the ability to extract the information from its own product.

The government filed a court order, demanding, essentially, that Apple create a new version of the operating system that would enable it to unlock that single iPhone. Apple defended itself, with CEO Tim Cook framing the request as a threat to individual liberty[3].

“We have a responsibility to help you protect your data and protect your privacy,” he said in a press conference. Then-FBI chief James Comey reportedly warned that Cook’s attitude could cost lives. “I just don’t want to get to a day where people look at us with tears in their eyes and say, ‘My daughter is missing and you have her cell phone—what do you mean you can’t tell me who she was ­texting before she disappeared?’ ” The controversy over Farook’s iPhone reignited a debate that was known in the 1990s as the Crypto Wars[4], when the government feared the world was “going dark” and tried—and ultimately failed—to impede the adoption of technologies that could encode people’s information. Only this time, with super­computers in everybody’s

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