Apple announced Wednesday that it would block access to a port that law enforcement uses to crack into iPhones during criminal investigations, a move that could reignite debate over whether tech companies are doing enough to help authorities probing serious crimes.
Apple said the change, which would disable the Lightning port on the bottom of iPhones an hour after users lock their phones, is part of software updates rolling out in the fall. Designed to better protect the private information of iPhone users, it will have little obvious effect on most people using the devices but will make it far more difficult for investigators to use extraction tools that attach through the port to collect the contents of seized iPhones.
The change is not intended to thwart law enforcement efforts, Apple said. "We're constantly strengthening the security protections in every Apple product to help customers defend against hackers, identity thieves and intrusions into their personal data," the company said in a statement. "We have the greatest respect for law enforcement, and we don't design our security improvements to frustrate their efforts to do their jobs."
Yet some authorities almost certainly will see it as yet another barrier to carrying out their legally sanctioned investigations.
Apple has been at the center of such debates since it declined FBI requests to unlock an iPhone 5C used by a gunman in the San Bernardino, California, shooting in 2015 that left 14 people dead. A brewing legal showdown was defused after the FBI hired professional hackers to crack into the device. Many such efforts rely on gaining access through the Lightning port for which Apple is now restricting access.
The Lightning port is used for charging iPhones, which will still be possible when the devices are in their locked state, and for transferring data, which will be blocked after an hour. Police sometimes seek to extract content by connecting devices to iPhone ports many days after seizing them from users under investigation.
Reaction to the proposed change broke along familiar lines, with privacy and security advocates cheering the move and law enforcement officials decrying it.
"This could be painted as fundamentally about denying law enforcement access, but this is a security vulnerability," said Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. "There is a method by which the security of the [iPhone] can be compromised by devices law enforcement can purchase. There's not really any reason to think only law enforcement will ever have those devices."
The spread of popular consumer devices with access to user communications, photos, documents, call records and location histories proved to be a massive boon for law enforcement and intelligence services for years. But revelations about the volume and precision of such data - most famously from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 - prompted a consumer backlash. Companies responded with a wave of new encryption initiatives and other security improvements on computers, smartphones and popular communication tools such as email.
Apple was among the leaders of this movement, portraying its devices as more secure than those of rivals and presenting its business model - which relied on pricey products, not the personal data of its users, for profit - as more attuned to the privacy expectations of its customers. The company drew particular ire from law enforcement in 2014 after announcing that its iOS 8 mobile operating system would include a new form of encryption making it impossible for the company to turn over the contents of iPhones to police - even when they had search warrants.