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Should Apple help the FBI access iPhone data?

Last Updated Feb 17, 2016 7:22 PM EST

When Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that his company would fight a federal magistrate's order to access the data from a phone belonging to one of the terrorists in the San Bernardino shootings, it started a national debate over personal user privacy versus ensuring national security.

The main conflict between the two sides? The FBI has essentially asked Apple to create a backdoor enabling investigators to hack the passcode for the phone in question (an iPhone 5C), while Apple warns that would compromise security and could be used to access information on other users' devices.

Here are the main arguments both sides have been making:

Apple's argument

For Apple, the most pressing concern is what precedent this sets for the future. The company fears that complying with this request would establish the possibility of a backdoor that could be used by third parties to access an unlimited number of devices in the future.

"The company is concerned that the government would ask for it [backdoor access] multiple times," CNET editor Dan Ackerman told CBS News. "Once it exists, then other governments could use it. The Chinese government will ask for it also, just as a prerequisite of Apple doing business in that country."

Ackerman added that, for Cook, the concern is that "once that genie is out of the bottle" there is essentially no going back.

Another main point for the company is the risk of dismantling encryption tools that have helped keep its customers' information safe over the years.

"Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk. That is why encryption has become so important to all of us," Cook wrote in a public letter to Apple customers. "For many years, we have used encryption to protect our customers' personal data because we believe it's the only way tot keep their information safe. We have even put that data out of our own reach, because we believe the contents of our iPhone are none of our business."

Cyberwarfare expert David Gewirtz said that Apple is pointing to a "valid risk" of potentially compromising user information down the line.

"What Apple is saying is that if they create a broken version of iOS with a backdoor (and let's be clear, there are and always have been jailbroken versions of iOS out there), then the Apple-provided version might fall into the wrong hands and be used on more than just one phone," Gewirtz wrote in an email to CBS News.

Another Silicon Valley giant, Google, is supporting Apple's view. Google CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted, "Important post by @tim_cook. Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users' privacy."

The Google CEO continued: "We know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism. We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. But that's wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent."

The FBI's argument

The argument from the FBI's end is that this is less an issue of securing private data on a phone and more of ensuring that all of the crucial intelligence in this particular case is collected.

"The government has a compelling reason to get into this phone. If Apple had a list of passwords, then they would be compelled to give it over," Ackerman said.

Given that the data the government needs still exists -- it just has to be unlocked from the phone -- there is justifiable frustration on the FBI's end at not being able to retrieve what is deemed important information, Ackerman said.

Last week, FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee and discussed the frustration of not being able to access encrypted material for investigations. This effectively obstructs his team's counterterrorism efforts, he said.

Comey said it's a big problem when law enforcement officials who have a search warrant are unable to open a phone and access its data.

"It affects our counterterrorism work. San Bernardino, a very important investigation to us, we still have one of those killers' phones that we have not been able to open, and it's been over two months and we're still working on it," he said.

Security vs. privacy

The dilemma comes down to this, Gewirtz said: "Do we compromise security now for the expediency of easy investigation or do we preserve everyone's security at the possible risk that someone who has been secured is a bad guy?"

Where do you stand on this debate? Tell us what you think by taking the poll below.

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    Brian Mastroianni covers science and technology for