First, it appears that Apple could do this because the iPhone is old. There's an in-depth analysis of this at Errata Security, but this is the bottom line:
If you have a newer iPhone (iPhone 6) then there's a hardware security module that would prevent this. The Bad Guy had an iPhone 5 version that didn't have this.The upshot is this. It's an older phone. If the iOS version is old, and especially if it's been configured to "trust" a laptop/desktop, then there is a good chance Apple or the FBI could decrypt it. If the software is reasonably up-to-date, my understanding of how iPhone's work, it's impossible at the moment for Apple to decrypt the device, especially as suggested by the court order.
There's more at El Reg that delves into the technical (for those that care) but also speculates on Apple's motives to resist the court order:
As the Mythbusters would say, "plausible".OK, so why is Apple going to war with the federal government over this?It's hard to know for certain, but some or all of the following points are likely good reasons:
- As mentioned above, it doesn't want to admit that its phones can be updated even when locked, by simply connecting a USB cable to them. Sure, you're updating it with official Apple firmware – just in this case, the firmware is deliberately insecure.
- Apple doesn't feel it can back down now that it has publicly stood up to law enforcement and politicians on matters of privacy and security.
- It fears that agreeing to this request would set a dangerous precedent for future versions of iOS. You trust Apple with every update – and now Apple's being asked to demonstrate that it can quite easily create insecure versions of its software and release them.
- It sees a strong defense of customer data as a key differentiator in the market.
- It has been waiting for a test case and thinks it can win this one, possibly all the way up to the Supreme Court.
- It is still angry about the Snowden revelations and wants to force the US government into the open over its surveillance of citizens.