Discussing the FBI case with a friend yesterday, one distinction that seems worth addressing is the difference between a backdoor into iPhones – which is what law enforcement agencies have so far been calling for – and what we might term a master key, which is what the FBI is calling for in this particular case.

Law enforcement agencies have so far been calling for Apple to abandon its use of strong encryption. Technically, they want Apple to build in a backdoor route into that encryption for use by law enforcement agencies, but that’s the same thing: strong encryption with a built-in flaw is not strong encryption. It’s only a matter of time before hackers find and exploit it.

What the FBI is asking in the San Bernardino case is quite different. Instead of asking Apple to weaken the encryption, they want it to weaken the lock guarding access to the phone by removing the auto-wipe and time-delay functions. That would leave the phone vulnerable to a brute-force attack.

And, the FBI assures us, it isn’t asking Apple to do this for all iPhones, just this one specific device. It’s a very different scenario, and one that sounds superficially harmless …

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