Smartphone Privacy

Apple Inc. informed a U.S. judge on Monday that it was impossible to gain access to a locked iPhone that is using its most recent operating system. However, the company told the judge that it can technically open a phone running an older version of its software.

Apple provided this information to U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein during court proceedings in Brooklyn, New York. The magistrate judge is deciding whether to grant a request by the U.S. Justice Department to force Apple to break the encryption on a seized iPhone.

Even Apple Cannot Break Into the Phones

Apple claims that 90 percent of its iPhones and iPads are currently operating under iOS 8 or more, and because the company has strengthened its encryption methods on these operating systems, it would be impossible to gain access to them.

The devices have a special feature that blocks anyone who does not have the passcode from gaining access to the information inside. Even Apple is unable to break the encryption code.

The feature was incorporated into new Apple phones and operating systems released in 2014 after NSA surveillance programs were exposed by Edward Snowden. The leaked information about NSA spying on American citizens inspired Apple to implement heightened privacy concerns.

iPhones Running Older Operating Systems Are Still Accessible

Apple advised the U.S. magistrate judge that it had the ability to access about 10 percent of its phones -- the ones that are still using pre-iOS 8 operating systems. However, Apple asked the judge not to force it to open these phones because it would undermine the trust the company has with its customers, and diminish the sanctity of the Apple brand.

In early October, James Orenstein said that he was not convinced he could force Apple to disable the iPhone's security system, saying that Congress had not acted on the encryption issue yet. He deferred his ruling until Apple was able to say whether it was even possible from a technical standpoint to access the information, and if it was possible, whether it would be overly burdensome.

A hearing is scheduled for Thursday, in which Apple will address the broader legal issues of whether it is lawful to require Apple to open accessible iPhones.