Apple has taken a stand against the US government in a case surrounding a terrorist shooting, arguing that the demands being made by the FBI could set a dangerous precedent for how private-sector companies can be used by law enforcement agencies, as well as weaken the security of mobile and connected devices to malicious hackers and fraudsters.
The case that has led to the debate is the prosecution of one of the gunmen responsible for the ISIS-associated shootings in San Bernardino, California two months ago. However, in an open letter to its customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that the order issued by a US magistrate judge has "implications far beyond the legal case at hand".
The FBI has been unable to break the default encryption used on an iPhone belonging to one of the gunman, and so has been unable to fully access the data stored on the device. Apple has stated that it cannot break the encryption itself, as the key to do so rests entirely with the customer.
However, the court order compels Apple to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to the FBI, which has used the opportunity to demand Apple create a forensics 'backdoor' that would work on all devices, which some industry experts have said would mean that any iPhone 5C and older would be able to have its encryption broken in under an hour.
"Smartphones, led by iPhone, have become an essential part of our lives," said Tim Cook in his letter. "People use them to store an incredible amount of personal information, from our private conversations to our photos, our financial information and health data, even where we have been and where we are going.
"The FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.
"While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect."
The Department of Justice, along with a number of US lawmakers and many of the candidates for the upcoming Presidential nomination, have criticised Apple for refusing to co-operated with the investigation and protecting the privacy of a terrorist, while numerous figures from the tech world, including Google CEO Sundar Pichai and privacy advocate Edward Snowden, have spoken in support of Apple's position.
Both sides of the debate are framing the argument very differently, with the US Government focusing on the San Bernardino shootings and the terrorist ties that the shooter may have had, while Apple and its supporters concentrating on the dangers to privacy and cyber-security any solution could pose.
Whatever the outcome of the legal battle that both sides are now preparing for, it is expected to set precedents in a number of areas, and could have a huge impact in the age of the smartphone.