the Beacon Journal editorial board

Apple tied its own hands. A few years ago, the company chose not to keep the encryption keys that would permit easy retrieval of information from the iPhones it sells. It acted in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, the company defining a stronger stand against government surveillance. It now faces a severe test of its position.

Federal authorities won a court order requiring Apple to provide access to data on the iPhone of one of the attackers in the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in December. The company has challenged the order, arguing it doesn’t have the tools to comply. Technically, that is right. Yet it could help gain access, which is what the FBI is seeking, and reasonably so.

The company warns that compliance would open a “back door” on its smartphones, putting in jeopardy the privacy of its customers, tipping the balance too far in favor of security. Actually, in this instance, authorities are making a narrow request. They are not seeking broad access. They are looking to examine one phone, used by a man in a crime, the FBI under judicial oversight.

This is similar to the bureau seeking information from phone companies or banks in its investigations. The bureau wants the company to write software that would allow, among others things, agents to run more quickly combinations of numbers to arrive at the correct passcode. Without question, that would set a precedent, yet the circumstances would be tightly defined and the access carefully drawn.

One element worth emphasis is that the phone wasn’t the property of the man involved in the killings. It belonged to his employer, and the employer has agreed to access. Such an arrangement surely carries a different presumption of privacy than if the phone was the property of the individual.

More, Apple backs up phone data on the iCloud, and the company has complied with many requests from investigating authorities for access to information stored there. Apple already has provided such data in this case. What the FBI wants is the information that had not yet been sent to the iCloud. If the data was going to be backed up, anyway, what is the harmful precedent?

In its defiance, Apple has set in motion a valuable discussion. Privacy must be protected, and the country has not been as vigilant as it should have been since the Sept. 11 attacks. In this instance, there is a way to achieve the right balance, privacy served and the needs of investigators, too.