Before the feds force Apple to weaken its security technology, the public needs to have a thorough, informed discussion about balancing the need for encryption with public safety concerns.

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IMAGINE if the government forced the leading lock manufacturer to give police a master key so they could have unfettered access to search and seize material in your home.

Americans should not stand for such a breach of their civil liberties and privacy. The impetus to form the United States was to protect its people from overbearing, intrusive government.

Yet this week we find the federal government strong-arming America’s most successful lockmaker, demanding that the company weaken locks that tens of millions of people depend upon for security and privacy.

Apple is the company and the lock in question is encryption technology used in the iPhone. At the FBI’s request, a federal magistrate judge on Tuesday ordered Apple to effectively weaken the iPhone’s security.

This comes amid a prolonged fit the FBI is having about encryption. It’s been angling to get Apple and others to create backdoors that police can use to bypass security systems.

Apple has nobly resisted, arguing rightly that any weakness added at the government’s request could be exploited by others.

Even the National Security Agency appears to agree with Apple, with its director last month saying that encryption is “foundational to the future.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook in November (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Apple CEO Tim Cook in November (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

But the San Bernardino terrorist attack gave the FBI an opening. One of the shooters left an iPhone the FBI can’t fully access. Apple has helped the FBI, but balked at its request to create a new version of the iPhone operating system with a built-in backdoor. The plan is to update the phone with this new software, giving the FBI full access. The ruling is pending while Apple prepares its response.

This is the slipperiest of slopes. The value of information gleaned from a particular phone is far outweighed by the erosion of privacy and liberty that would result from enabling the FBI to defeat Apple’s encryption.

“The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true,” Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in a public response that provides a good overview of issues at stake. “Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices.”

Already, American tech companies are suffering because federal snooping has undermined their products’ global reputation.

A bigger concern, though, is the corrosive effect these police tactics have on America’s position as the standard-bearer for civil liberties, innovation and leadership on technology policy.

President Obama has said the public should have a conversation about balancing the need for encryption with public-safety concerns. That should happen before Apple is forced to give the FBI a workaround.