In a report Thursday, the New York Times raised an interesting scenario: that individual Apple employees could refuse to comply with the FBI's court order to create new software to bypass security on the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook — or perhaps even quit their jobs to avoid making something with which they don't agree.
It would be an interesting extra twist in Apple's protracted and contentious battle with the FBI, and sets up a scenario in which the FBI could lose even if it wins.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook has made clear how he and the company as a whole feel about creating this software; Cook called it the "software equivalent of cancer." What the Times report made clear was that this opinion isn't Cook's alone — it also exists among those who would be called on to actually write the code to comply with the order.
The report included interviews with former Apple employees who said they could see such a situation play out, as well as references to conversations with unnamed current Apple employees who say the same. That poses a big problem for the FBI — perhaps even more so than the public relations battle it's fighting now — because there really aren't that many people who seem to be able to do what they want.
The whole reason that the agency issued this order to Apple, according to the agency itself, is that Apple has the only people who know the technology well enough to tackle this task right now.
Refusing such an order certainly has its consequences. The founder of the email service Lavabit shut it down in 2013 in defiance of an FBI order for information on one of its users — a user now confirmed, in court documents, to have been Edward Snowden. But if these engineers quit Apple, and therefore severed ties with the company, consequences likely wouldn't be nearly as dire. The Times report notes that they'd probably be welcomed at other Silicon Valley companies that have lined up in support of Apple, particularly in a very competitive job market.
And while potentially losing employees would be bad for Apple, it would make it that much harder for the company to comply promptly if the FBI ultimately prevails in this fight.
Apple and the FBI are due in federal court next week in Riverside, Calif., for the next round of their battle — just one day after Apple is expected to announce a new iPhone.