Some employees at Apple may refuse or even quit if they are forced to unlock the San Bernardino iPhone, The New York Times reports. A number of Apple employees are said to be discussing their options if Apple is ordered by law enforcement authorities to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone in the current high-profile FBI case, with several suggesting they may even quit their high-paying jobs as opposed to undermining the security of the software that they designed. The New York Times interviewed several Apple employees, including engineers involved in the design and security of iOS, in addition to former security engineers and executives. Many of those interviewed echoed the arguments that Apple itself has made in its own legal documents — that their free speech is being impinged upon by an order to perform tasks that they would consider personally offensive. In Apple’s own final court brief, the company’s lawyers wrote that “Such conscription is fundamentally offensive to Apple’s core principles and would pose a severe threat to the autonomy of Apple and its engineers.” The interviews also shine a light on the internal culture of Apple, which reportedly retains the very anti-establishment views of its original co-founders, Jobs and Wozniak, something that venture capitalist and former Apple engineering manager Jean-Louis Gassée describes as “an independent culture and a rebellious one,” and adding that “if the government tries to compel testimony or action from these engineers, good luck with that.”
The skills of senior Apple engineers would be in high demand elsewhere, so the risk of losing a paycheck or position at Apple would likely not deter many from simply seeking work elsewhere if they were asked to go against their personal values. As the NYT article notes, such an act of personal integrity might be seen as a “badge of honor” among other tech companies. Electronic Privacy Information Center executive director Marc Rotenberg likened such an act of civil disobedience by a computer scientist akin to the professional ethics of a doctor refusing to administer a lethal drug.
Another interesting point made by the New York Times article is that due to the segregated nature of Apple’s engineering teams, the team that would be required to built the so-called “governmentOS” does not even exist at Apple at this time, and Apple would have to bring together the “handful of software engineers with technical expertise in writing highly secure software — the same people who have designed Apple’s security system over the last decade.” While Apple could be held in contempt of court if its employees refused to write the code, if enough key senior engineering staff left the company, Apple could declare itself fundamentally unable to comply with a potential court order.