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If Apple loses, bid privacy goodbye

The official seal of the Federal Bureau of

The official seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is seen on an iPhone's camera screen outside the J. Edgar Hoover headquarters on Feb. 23, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Credit: Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla

By now, you have probably heard different opinions about a California federal court ordering Apple to help the FBI decrypt an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, California, shooters. After the order was issued on Feb. 16, Apple chief executive Tim Cook explained that the company would challenge the court ruling because it could establish a dangerous precedent to weaken the security of Apple devices.

A few days later, FBI Director James Comey said in a statement that the legal fight was over a “narrow” issue — accessing the San Bernardino iPhone. But, not long after, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance acknowledged in an interview that he wants Apple to help break into 175 iPhones in a wide range of cases. Apple then told a court in New York that the FBI is asking for similar orders in 12 other cases. Apple filed a motion challenging the court order in the San Bernardino case, arguing that it violates the law and the Constitution.

This case is not an isolated incident, and what happens with it matters for all Americans — not just Apple and its customers. It may seem like there isn’t much downside to Apple assisting the FBI in the San Bernardino investigation, but that is not true for at least two reasons.

First, what the California court ordered Apple to do would impact the security of all iPhones. Apple would have to create special software — an “FBiOS,” so to speak, that would disable key security features in iPhones. Those security features are there to protect iPhone users from theft and abuse, and law enforcement officers know this; that is why they encourage users to upgrade and secure phones by enabling encryption. Smartphone theft is a pervasive problem — millions of devices are snatched each year — that is only getting worse.

But a recent study found that iPhone theft declined sharply after security features were introduced. Cellphones contain a wealth of personal information — private messages, financial and health records, photos and more — that make them attractive targets. In fact, cellphones hold so much sensitive data that in 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court granted them special protection under the Fourth Amendment, finding that even when a phone is taken during a lawful arrest, officers must get a separate warrant to search it. If Apple is required to weaken its security protections, these important interests will be irreparably harmed.

Second, if the court order is upheld, it will set a dangerous precedent, not only for future FBI cases involving iPhones, but also for other cases in which investigators want to create security loopholes in “smart” devices. And this is not limited to the United States. If a U.S. court can order Apple to weaken the security of its devices, then how would Apple refuse a similar order from a court in China or Russia? If Apple is forced to create this security loophole, then why wouldn’t other phone and computer manufacturers also be required to create loopholes? We rely on companies to build and maintain secure software to protect our data. If Apple is forced to compromise the security of its devices, the trust will be broken and private data will be compromised.

Given the high cost — compromised security and an inability to trust our devices — is it really worth it to help unlock data that might never be used in a criminal case?

The FBI will continue to pursue investigations no matter what the court decides. But it is up to Americans to stand up for the security of devices we use every day. We shouldn’t trade away our security for a slim chance of finding evidence.

Alan Butler is senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public research interest group in Washington, D.C.