Can Apple be forced to hack its own iPhones? That question is at the heart of the latest skirmish in the war between Silicon Valley and law enforcement over smartphone encryption — and the answer may depend on an 18th-century law you’ve never heard of.

This week, the FBI obtained a court order demanding Apple’s help breaking into the iPhoneused by Syed Rizwan Farook.

Killed in a shootout with police in the aftermath of the San Bernardino terror attack, Farook obviously can’t unlock the phone, so the bureau wants Apple to write custom software that will help it do so.

In a blistering letter, Apple CEO Tim Cook pledged to fight the demand, warning that the court order would set a “dangerous precedent” threatening the security of millions worldwide.

The government wants Apple to create for it a phone-hacking app keyed specifically to Farook’s device, but similar demands from other agencies would surely follow, and Cook fears that the digital “skeleton key” would eventually fall into the wrong hands.

This dust-up is only the most recent battle in the “Crypto Wars” — a long-running debate over how to deal with strong encryption technology.

But Farook was no Edward Snowden — he only locked his phone with a simple numerical code. So the FBI could easily run through all the possible combinations in a few hours or days — if only the phone weren’t programmed to wipe itself after too many wrong guesses.

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