Strong cryptography is clearly required to protect sensitive government, business, and personal information. But it also sometimes makes it difficult for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to obtain information they need. The United States government has been publically struggling with this issue since the mid-1990s, when the painful sinking of the Clipper Chip initiative demonstrated that the American public would not tolerate government-mandated key escrow, and that forcing it on vendors had the potential to cripple tech-sector exports.
Legislators have essentially refused to address the thorny issue, resulting in law enforcement agencies using any available avenues. Recent litigation between the FBI and Apple has brought the issue to a head, and the case is being carefully watched worldwide at the watercooler and the boardroom table.
The FBI is investigating an act of terrorism. Instead of seeking Apple’s advice from the beginning, they apparently made a serious error that denied them access to data stored on an iPhone via the iCloud backup mechanism. It is obvious why the FBI wants to view all data on the phone, and why they are willing to use any legal means at their disposal, including a catch-all law from 1789, in an attempt to force Apple to create a special tool to hack it.