What does the government want?
The F.B.I. is trying to force Apple to help investigators gain access to an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook in the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
Bureau officials say that encrypted data in Mr. Farook’s phone and its GPS system may hold vital clues about where he and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, traveled in the 18 minutes after the shootings, and about whom they might have contacted beforehand.
It sounds like a simple problem but the solution would be complex. The password mechanism built into the phone will erase the phone’s data after 10 incorrect password attempts. That security is standard issue on newer iPhones and to get around it, Apple says it would have to create new software.
Why is Apple resisting?
The company has been fighting a federal court order requiring it to provide access to the F.B.I., on the grounds that it violates its right to due process.
Apple also says that forcing it to write new software violates its First Amendment right, an argument that has some precedent. Courts have ruled in the past that writing code is a form of free speech.
The F.B.I. says it only wants Apple to create software to break into this one phone. But the company fears it could create a permanent way to bypass iPhone password protection for law enforcement or even the spy agencies of other countries.
In a similar case in Brooklyn, a judge last week ruled in Apple’s favor.
Why does the dispute matter?
Simply put, the government contends that cooperation in cases like this could help prevent future terrorist attacks against Americans.
Privacy advocates and Apple supporters say they worry that if the F.B.I. succeeds in getting access to the software overriding Apple’s encryption, it would create easy access for the government in many future investigations.
Apple senior executives, for their part, have said their defiance was not a business choice. But cooperating with the government now could quickly lead to murkier situations internationally, especially in China, where officials have been pushing for greater control over the encryption and security of technology sold there.
China has become Apple’s second-largest market after the United States. People there spent $59 billion on Apple products in the last fiscal year.
Saying yes to the United States government could make it hard for Apple to later say no to China, and saying no could significantly affect the company’s bottom line.