What Happens If Key Apple Engineers Refuse to Write GovtOS?

Picture this hypothetical scenario: Apple ultimately loses its legal fight against the FBI's demand that it create a new operating system that bypasses iOS security—an OS Apple has dubbed GovtOS. Apple CEO Tim Cook already pointed out Apple will obey the law, but what would happen if key Apple engineers refused to do the work, perhaps going so far as quitting their jobs at Apple?

Artist rendition of hypothetical coder protest

Exactly that question has been raised in an in-depth report from The New York Times in which the reporters (John Markhoff, Katie Benner, and Brian X. Chen) say they interviewed Apple employees on the subject.

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice has been fairly blithe about their ability to force Apple to create GovtOS, going so far as to be dismissive about the work needed. But behind that work are human beings—most or all of whom are likely U.S. citizens—and some of those human beings are key engineers at Apple.

In other words, GovtOS might need as few as ten or so engineers and a month of their valuable time, but the pool of engineers from whom those ten or so people might be drawn is not inexhaustible. And according to The Times, it may actually be quite small.

Talk Isn't Cheap

Making the situation even more interesting, there's already talk in Apple circles about what they might do, and some of them might quit rather than weaken iOS's security. They could also engage in "work absences"—think civil disobedience in the form of sick leaves or other excuses not to work.

As noted above, this whole fight has been cast as "Apple" vs. the FBI, but Apple is made of people, and it's those people who inform Apple's culture and values. To wit, Apple's attorneys wrote in a court filing earlier this week that, "Such conscription is fundamentally offensive to Apple’s core principles and would pose a severe threat to the autonomy of Apple and its engineers."

It would be a huge wrinkle if Apple, ordered to do this thing for the FBI, no longer had the people to do that thing. Would the government then get court orders to force those people to go to work? As philosophically heinous and morally reprehensible as the FBI's case has been so far, imagine how that scenario would play out. I strongly doubt the government would attempt such a move, and doubt even more strongly that it would be successful.

"If—and this is a big if—every engineer at Apple who could write the code quit and, also a big if, Apple could demonstrate that this happened to the court’s satisfaction, then Apple could not comply and would not have to," Joseph DeMarco, a former federal prosecutor, told The New York Times. "It would be like asking my lawn guy to write the code."

He added that Apple could then be held in contempt, but if Apple truly didn't have the people to do the work, what difference would that make?

Let's hope it doesn't get that far; let's hope that this nonsense gets squished by the courts before it gets any further. But I'm beginning to think that even if the FBI wins, it will be victory on paper only, that even if Apple Inc. can be forced to do this thing, the people who comprise Apple Inc. won't do it.

Two Important Notes

There are a couple of more important notes on this story. The first is that it's clear this case is disrupting Apple. The Times claimed it interviewed a dozen Apple employees who said that people inside the company are spending their time talking about this stuff.

That's time that can't be spent improving iOS, OS X, iPhones, Macs, and Apple Pencils. Like the iBooks antitrust case, the FBI's attempt to screw us all on encryption has become a huge overhang weighing down Apple.

The other important note is that the Times' article has all the earmarks of a controlled leak from Apple. For The Times to be able to interview a dozen people within Apple suggests to me they had permission to speak. If so, Apple's leadership could be sending a message that there's more than one way to skin a cat, court order or no.

Image made with help from Shutterstock.