Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Apple vs. FBI Case Study

Apple iPhone

Apple iPhone

Ann Skeet and Markkula Center Staff

Kiichiro Sato/AP Photo

In the wake of the December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, attention turned to the perpetrator’s iPhone.  A federal judge asked Apple, maker of the iPhone, to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to the FBI in accessing the information on the phone with that hope of discovering additional threats to national security.

Apple provided the FBI with data it had in their possession and sent Apple engineers to advise the FBI, but refused to comply with the court order to bypass the phone’s security measures: specifically the 4-digit login code and a feature that erases all data after ten incorrect attempts.  The FBI argued that the bypass could only be used for this phone, this one time.  The agency also cited national security concerns, given the phone may lead to better understanding the attack and preventing further incidents.

Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a public letter reiterating Apple’s refusal to cooperate.  Cook advocated for the benefits of encryption in society to keep personal information safe.  He stated that creating the backdoor entry into the iPhone would be akin to creating a master key capable of accessing the tens of millions of iPhones in the U.S. alone.  Cook also had concerns that the FBI was outstepping its bounds - by using the court system to expand its authority - and believed the case should be settled after public debate and legislative action through Congress instead.

Public opinion polls on the issue were split.  A number of major tech firms filed amicus briefs in support of Apple.  The White House and Bill Gates stood behind the FBI.  In anticlimactic fashion, the FBI withdrew its request a day before the hearing, claiming it no longer needed Apple’s help to assess the phone.  It is speculated that an Israeli tech firm, Cellebrite, helped the FBI gain assess.


  1. Was Apple wrong for not complying with the FBI’s request? If so, why?  If not, why not?
  2. What ethical issues are involved in this case? Please consult our Framework for Ethical Decision Making for an overview of modes of moral reasoning.
  3. Who are the stakeholders in this situation?
  4. Apple’s values are listed on the bottom of its home page at Is the company’s decision consistent with its values?  Is that important?
Jan 1, 2016