The problem, from the standpoint of law enforcement, is precisely that. There are times in which law enforcement wants -- needs -- to know what people are saying, and the broad use of encryption technologies makes it much harder to do that. Apple's messaging system uses "end-to-end" encryption, which means that when the message leaves your phone it is encrypted and it is only encrypted when it reaches the other person. It passes over Apple's servers to get there, but Apple can't see what you're saying. This is good for privacy; this is bad for the police.
When political candidates are asked about the issue, as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were on Thursday night, they have to figure out where to find some middle ground.
"I think because this is one of the most difficult dilemmas that we're faced with," Clinton said, when asked about the court ruling. Her solution? "[W]hat I keep calling for is to try to get the government and our great tech companies to figure out what is the path forward."
Sanders's response was similar. "I think there has got to be a balance," he said. "But count me in as somebody who is a very strong civil libertarian, who believes that we can fight terrorism without undermining our constitutional rights and our privacy rights."
The problem is that there really isn't any middle ground, unlike many things in the political world. Creating a way to undermine encryption undermines that encryption for everyone. No matter how well the door in the endless, giant wall is hidden, someone can find it.
In the San Bernardino case, the court ordered Apple not to undo its encryption but instead to facilitate the process of trying to hack that encryption. Unencrypting something often requires a "brute force" attack, trying every possible password to unlock the data. By default, Apple only lets you try this a few times. What the court ordered is that a brute force attack be made easier, without the built-in limits the iPhone software includes. In other words, the court wants Apple to create a back door through which the feds can more easily access data.
Technologist Bruce Schneier explained in an essay in The Post this week why that's a problem: Creating such a system would mean that any hacker, not just one from the FBI, could find a way into your phone. "The hacked software the court and the FBI wants Apple to provide," Schneier writes, "would be general. It would work on any phone of the same model. It has to. Make no mistake; this is what a backdoor looks like. This is an existing vulnerability in iPhone security that could be exploited by anyone."
We can show this by way of example. At the bottom of this post is the entire text of the Sherlock Holmes novel "The Hound of the Baskervilles," a book in the public domain and digitized by Project Gutenberg.
In this lengthy book, we've hidden a prize. You'll quickly notice that every letter "e" is a link. One of them -- one of the 29,979 e's in the book -- is a link that will trigger a special event. I've done my best to hide this event, but no matter how hard I try, I can't hide it entirely. It's impossible. As an incentive to look -- and to prove that it can be found -- the first three people that find it will get bragging rights and a small prize.
In this case, the brute force system is clicking every "e." It would work, but it would take longer. Imagine if I made you wait a minute before clicking the next "e," for example. It would take as much as 30,000 minutes to find the right link -- or more than 20 days. One of the things the court told Apple to do is to eliminate a similar time limit it imposes between attempts.
There was a way for me to hide the link entirely: Not to include it. But that's the point. If there's a way to find it, there's no way to keep it from being found by anyone who is looking. And, for that matter, sharing the secret with everyone else.
Update: We have our first winner! Ariana Giorgi found the right "E" -- and quickly enough that we've made it a bit trickier. Give it a shot.
Update number two: Corey Miller figured out which "E" was right from the harder version of the puzzle. His solution involved the use of regular expressions, which, if you know anything about coding, you'll know is not the simplest thing in the world.
Update the third: Sean Bowman is our third winner, who used a slightly different method than the first two. All of which makes the point more easily than I could have imagined. Someone found the back door, so I made it harder. It took a bit longer, but then two other people found it, using different methods.
This is the problem, in a nutshell. If it's there, it will be found.