The debate over encryption has reached new heights in a legal battle between Apple and the FBI.
In response to a federal magistrate’s order requiring Apple to assist the agency in accessing data from the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, the company is pushing back, pledging to challenge the request in the name of its customers’ privacy.
CEO Tim Cook published a public response early Wednesday morning, just hours after a Riverside, Calif., judge signed an order asking the company to break into the encrypted iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, who, with his wife, shot and killed 14 people at a holiday party in December.
“We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good,” Cook wrote in a letter to his customers. “Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”
The 40-page court order from the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles requests that Apple’s engineers create a new iPhone operating system designed to bypass the company’s security features and install it on the iPhone 5C that belonged to Farook. Prosecutors hope to access “critical data” about the shooters, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group, including people they were in contact with and where they traveled before the shooting.
Despite a warrant, prosecutors argued, “The government has been unable to complete the search because it cannot access the iPhone’s encrypted content. Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search, but has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily.”
The court order asks Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” in creating a new mobile operating system. This iOS would disable a feature in the iPhone that automatically erases its data after too many failed attempts for access. This way the FBI can attempt to unlock the phone by submitting an endless series of passcodes via something known as a brute-force attack.
While the order applies only to Farook’s device, Cook argued that creating this new software would ultimately compromise the privacy of the “tens of millions of American citizens” who use Apple devices.
“In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession,” he wrote. “The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”