If the government wins its legal battle to force Apple to help unlock one of the San Bernardino shooters’ iPhones, the company’s employees may either quit or refuse to write the code, The New York Times reports.
More than half a dozen current and former Apple engineers told the publication they are already discussing how they will respond if the FBI is successful in compelling the company to write a new operating system that disables a key security feature on the device.
Among those interviewed — including engineers involved in mobile product and security development, as well as former security engineers and executives — some said they would quit, while others said they would simply refuse to do the work.
Specifically, the software the government is requesting would deactivate a failsafe that triggers the phone to erase its content if an incorrect password is inputted 10 times. Without that failsafe, investigators could use a “brute force attack,” in which a machine tries the thousands of possible password combinations until one works.
The possible resistance hints at one of Apple’s legal defenses of its refusal to assist the FBI. The company argues that forcing it to write code — which is legally considered “speech” — is a violation of Apple’s free speech rights.
“Such conscription is fundamentally offensive to Apple’s core principles and would pose a severe threat to the autonomy of Apple and its engineers,” Apple’s lawyers wrote in the company’s final brief to the California court.
Apple said in court filings last month that it would take six to 10 of its engineers up to a month to create the disputed code, nicknamed “GovtOS” by the company. If employees quit or decline to cooperate, then putting together the appropriate team of engineers may prove more difficult.
A judge could in theory levy daily penalties on the company for delaying compliance, or hold it in contempt.
Conversely, if the rebellion is widespread enough, Apple may be able to avoid complying.
“If — and this is a big if — every engineer at Apple who could write the code quit and, also a big if, Apple could demonstrate that this happened to the court’s satisfaction, then Apple could not comply and would not have to,” Joseph DeMarco, a former federal prosecutor, told the Times. “It would be like asking my lawn guy to write the code.”