WASHINGTON — As a legal matter, the showdown between the Obama administration and Apple touched off Tuesday by the ruling of a federal magistrate judge in California turns on an 18th century law. More practically, though, it boils down to this question: Should you be able to lock your phone so securely that even the F.B.I. cannot open it?
The Obama administration and police officers around the country say no, and their precedent is the past. Homes and cars do not have unbreakable locks. You cannot buy an uncrackable safe. And terrorists and child molesters should not be able to buy a hand-held computer that keeps its secrets forever.
Apple, backed by technologists and civil libertarians, says yes. People live their lives electronically; their phones are a record of loves and fantasies, illnesses and losses. Apple built its recent iPhones to keep that data private and says nothing less than the future of privacy is at stake in this fight.
The Justice Department’s success in obtaining a court order demanding that Apple help write software to disable those defenses was a significant victory for the Obama administration. It relied on the All Writs Act, a law that can trace its origins to the first Congress in 1789. In short, it says courts can require that people do things to comply with their orders.
For months, the Justice Department and Apple have been trading heated rhetoric and lurching toward this very confrontation, only to back away. By the end of last year, it seemed that Apple and other technology companies had won the public relations battle.
The attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., in December, however, changed the government’s calculation. Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two people suspected of killing 14 people, left behind an iPhone 5c — a locked one. The F.B.I. has not been able to get access to any data on it.
For the administration, it was perhaps the perfect test case, one that put Apple on the side of keeping secrets for a terrorist.
Mr. Farook’s phone is protected by a password that Apple says it does not keep. It is encrypted with an algorithm the company says it cannot break. The F.B.I. wants to write a computer program to send the phone an unlimited combination of passwords until it finds one that works.
But Apple built its phones to protect against that tactic. Each wrong guess causes a short delay, which would significantly slow the F.B.I.’s effort. After too many incorrect guesses, the phone will automatically erase its memory.
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