This piece from Buzzfeed reaffirms the point that the FBI’s requests have less to do with accessing this particular phone than setting legal precedent.
In interviews with BuzzFeed News Wednesday, the former officers with the FBI and NSA acknowledged that U.S. intelligence agencies have technology that has been used in past intelligence-gathering operations to break into locked phones. The question, they added, was whether it was worthwhile for the FBI to deploy that technology, rather than setting a precedent through the courts.
Setting legal precedent in this way would make it much more difficult for Apple, and other surveillance resistant companies, to resist government back doors in the future. It’s pretty hard to argue that you will not break encryption if you’ve already weakened security to help law enforcement in the past. Should this precedent be set, I expect we’d see law enforcement agencies using measures like this as standard operating procedure. It is expensive and difficult for the government to keep up with security advances in the tech industry.
The White House’s rebuttal to Tim Cook’s argument is that the FBI is only seeking to break security on this one particular device. On the face of it, this claim is ridiculous. Once the technology exists, government requests to use it will come again, and Apple’s protests will be shrugged off. They want Apple and others to do their work for them.