Apple Engineers Could Quit Over iPhone Encryption Case

Several Apple engineers have told the New York Times that they'd consider leaving one of the industry's most prized companies and positions rather than be made to create a so-called GovtOS to crack the iPhone's encryption technology.

Michelle Maisto, Freelance Writer

March 18, 2016

4 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: Jason Doiy/iStockphoto)</p>

iPhone Encryption: 5 Ways It's Changed Over Time

iPhone Encryption: 5 Ways It's Changed Over Time

iPhone Encryption: 5 Ways It's Changed Over Time (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Apple engineers may walk off the job if they're made to create software that makes it possible for law enforcement to access locked iPhones, The New York Times reported March 17, citing interviews with current and former Apple employees.

Some said they'd rather leave their prestigious positions than be made to create something that undermines their current work.

"It's an independent culture and a rebellious one," Jean-Louis Gassée, a venture capitalist who was once an engineering manager at Apple, told the Times. "If the government tries to compel testimony or action from these engineers, good luck with that."

In legal briefs filed in response to the FBI and Justice Department's orders both to unlock a specific device and create a way to eliminate the same roadblock in the future, Apple has argued, in part, that software coding -- which demands choices of language, syntax, structures, audience, and more -- is a form of speech, and that forcing speech is a violation of the First Amendment.

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"[C]reating the type of software demanded here … would necessarily involve precisely the kind of expression of ideas and concepts protected by the First Amendment," Apple's attorneys wrote in a March 15 filing.

In the same filing they went on to insist that Apple:

… objects to the government's attempted conscription of it to send individual citizens into a super-secure facility to write code for several weeks on behalf of the government on a mission that is contrary to the values of the company and these individuals. Such conscription is fundamentally 'offensive to' Apple's core principles, and would 'pose a severe threat to the autonomy' of Apple and its engineers … (due process protects 'personal choices central to individual … autonomy').

Given the amount of work involved to meet the government's demands, and given how compartmentalized Apple is, "the challenge of building what the company described as 'GovtOS' would be substantially complicated if key employees refused to do the work," the Times reported.

The government's order became a matter of national debate after Apple CEO Tim Cook posted an open letter about it on the Apple website, saying it "has implications far beyond the legal case at hand" and that it "calls for public discussion."

So, what happens if the discussion is had -- and debated in a court of law -- and Apple's engineers are still told to get to work on GovtOS? Could such a "You can't make me" stance come across as the opposite of the high road Apple has presented itself as taking?

"I don't think it hurts Apple at all," Ezra Gottheil, principal analyst with Technology Business Research told Information Week. "It demonstrates that it's an issue of passion and concern, and the engineers are deeply involved. It keeps the discussion going."

Further, Gottheil suggested that, given what a high-achieving group they are, the engineers may find the challenge of both creating the OS and ensuring it doesn't leak actually rather compelling.

"As the design constrains get more complex, it becomes more challenging," said Gottheil.

As for the idea that Apple could have no one left to do the work, he added, "That's just silly."

Far more serious is the potential economic impact that could follow from Apple being made to create software that allows the government into currently encrypted places.

"Apple and other global tech companies generate billions of revenue outside the US, from countries that, thanks to the Snowden incident, are currently highly distrustful of the NSA specifically, and the US in general," Garrett Bekker, a senior analyst in the Enterprise Security Practice of 451 Research, told Information Week.

"CEOs of US-based global tech companies have to be terrified about the potential fallout and impact to their bottom lines, from not only this particular case, but also other issues regarding data sovereignty and data privacy that are popping up around the world."

About the Author(s)

Michelle Maisto

Freelance Writer

Michelle Maisto is a writer, a reader, a plotter, a cook, and a thinker whose career has revolved around food and technology. She has been, among other things, the editor-in-chief of Mobile Enterprise Magazine, a reporter on consumer mobile products and wireless networks for, and the head writer at a big data startup focused on data networks and shared data. She has contributed to Gourmet, Saveur, and Yahoo Food. Her memoir, The Gastronomy of Marriage, was published on three continents. She's currently learning Mandarin at an excruciating pace.

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