In the case of the San Bernardino shooter, rather than telling Apple to break the encryption protecting the device, which is an older iPhone 5C running iOS 9, the order would force the company to build a special version of its software that removes protections against anyone guessing your passcode millions of times until it gets it right—what's technically known as a "brute-force" attack.
At stake is whether a company can be legally compelled to sabotage the security of its own software
There's one big catch, however. None of this matters if Apple can alter the firmware running the Secure Enclave. So if the feds ever get Apple to write that custom forensic tool to disable restrictions against brute-forcing passcodes on a 5C, there might be nothing preventing them to ask Apple to do the same for newer phones. (In that case, they would need two custom forensic tools, but the underlying workaround would be the same.)Apple declined to comment, and did not answer a specific question asking whether it's possible for Apple to alter the firmware on the Security Enclave. But experts, while saying only Apple knows the real answer, agree that it likely is."It should be completely possible to apply this attack even on the newer phones," Ryan Stortz, a senior security researcher at Trail of Bits, who has studied how the Security Enclave works, told me. "Apple will still be creating a solution for the FBI that can be trivially re-used" […] It'd be pretty generically applicable in the future."Stortz explained that at this point, the only difference would be that the brute-forcing would have to be done on the device itself, so the investigators wouldn't be able to use an external computer. But Apple could still allow the same brute-forcing process to work via some sort of API, and at that point, the only restriction would still be the 80 millisecond limit between guesses, which is enforced at the hardware level, according to Stortz.
"It should be completely possible to apply this attack even on the newer phones."