Apple has hit back after a United States federal magistrate ordered the company to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, with chief executive Tim Cook describing the demand as “chilling”.
The court order focuses on Apple’s security feature that slows down anyone trying to use “brute force” to gain access to an iPhone by guessing its passcode.
In a letter published on the company’s website, Cook responded, saying Apple would oppose the order and called for public debate.
“The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step, which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand,” he wrote.
Although Cook took pains to stress that Apple was “shocked and outraged” by the San Bernardino shooting last December – “we have no sympathy for terrorists” – he said the company is determined to fight the order.
Cook wrote that opposing the order “is not something we take lightly”. “We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the US government,” he added.
“Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the US 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 back door to the iPhone,” he wrote.
“Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation.”
‘Undermining’ customers’ security
Cook claimed that “in the wrong hands” this software could be used to unlock “any iPhone in someone’s physical possession”, and warned that Apple would not be able to guarantee that the software would only be used by the FBI in this case.
“The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers – including tens of millions of American citizens – from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals.
“The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe.”
Cook also claimed that the FBI’s use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify its request could also have a knock-on effect. “The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data,” he wrote.
“The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”
Cook concludes: “We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.
“While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a back door into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.” – © Guardian News & Media 2016