Apple Engineers Threaten To Quit Over FBI Encryption Court Decision

Some Apple engineers say that they would consider quitting their jobs if ordered to help the FBI break encryption on iOS devices. Apple was ordered last month to assist the FBI in breaking encryption on an iPhone owned by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwaan Farook, but the case is currently tied up in appeals.

Apple’s appeal of the court order to help the FBI break encryption on its iOS devices currently hinges on the idea that it is unduly burdensome, according to The Verge. Providing access to an iPhone owned by the San Bernardino shooter would not be as simple as flipping a switch, or handing over encryption data, but would actually require Apple to engineer a custom operating system.

apple encryption appeal
Apple SVP and General Counsel Bruce Sewell demonstrates encryption concerns before the House Judiciary Committee. [AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana]

The custom operating system, referred to in Apple’s appeal as GovtOS, could only be put together by a dedicated team of engineers with very specific skill sets, according to Vanity Fair. Apple estimates that the team would require between six and 10 engineers, and that it would take them up to a month to complete the job.

Since the engineers tasked to create GovtOS would be pulled from their regular duties for between two and four weeks, Apple argues that complying with the court order would be unduly burdensome.

Even if Apple decided to abandon the appeals process and create the team immediately, new reports say that the engineers may not agree to create GovtOS at all. According to the New York Times, Apple employees who are well-versed in encryption, and have worked on securing iOS devices in the past, may simply quit their jobs if ordered to create a backdoor for the FBI.

The New York Times reports that the skills required to do the work are so specific, and so in demand, that any Apple engineer who quit their job over this matter would have little trouble finding new employment elsewhere in the tech world.

“If someone attempts to force them to work on something that’s outside their personal values, they can expect to find a position that’s a better fit somewhere else,” former senior product manager for Apple’s security and privacy division, and current CSO of start-up Fastly, Window Snyder, told the New York Times.

According to the New York Times, the independent culture encouraged at Apple, stemming from the early days under Steve Wozniak, could play a part in engineers refusing to comply with the order.

An independent culture dating back to founder Wozniak could make Apple engineers more likely to quit on principle. [AP Photo/Sal Veder, File]

“It’s an independent culture and a rebellious one,” Jean-Louis Gassée, former Apple engineering manager, told the New York Times. “If the government tries to compel testimony or action from these engineers, good luck with that.”

Another point raised in Apple’s appeal is that after creating, testing, and deploying GovtOS, the company would have to expend further resources to destroy the code. However, Erik Neuenschwander, Apple’s privacy manager, wrote in a court motion that the code could never be totally destroyed, since the team responsible for creating it could feasibly recreate it later on.

“Even if the underlying computer code is completely eradicated from Apple’s servers so as to be irretrievable, the person who created the destroyed code would have spent the time and effort to solve the software design, coding, and implementation challenges. This process could be replicated. Thus, GovtOS would not be truly destroyed.”

According to The Verge, there are at least 13 other Apple devices subject to court order by the FBI at this time. If Apple ultimately folds and creates GovtOS, they would have to go through the entire process of creating, testing, deploying, and destroying the code each and every time a law enforcement agency made such a request.

If Apple’s engineers that are capable of creating GovtOS quit first, the process could become extremely difficult to complete.

Do you think that Apple engineers should quit if ordered to assist the FBI in breaking iOS encryption, or should they comply with the court order despite privacy concerns?

[Photo by AP Photo/Steven Senne, File]