Apple CEO Tim Cook has posted an open letter to Apple customers announcing that the company would oppose an order from a U.S. Federal judge to help the FBI access data on an iPhone 5c used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. Cook says that this moment is one for public discussion, and that the company wants its customers to understand what’s at stake.
Cook starts the letter noting that smartphones have become an essential part of people’s lives and that many people store private conversations, photos, music, notes, calendars and both financial and health information on their devices. Ultimately, Cook says, encryption helps keep people’s data safe, which in turn keeps people’s personal safety from being at risk.
He then goes on to say that Apple and its employees were “shocked and outraged” by the San Bernardino attack and that Apple has complied with valid subpoenas and search warrants from federal investigators. Apple has also made engineers available to advise the FBI in addition to providing general advice on how they could go about investigating the case. However, Cook says that’s where Apple will draw the line.
We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. 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.
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. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.
Cook says that while the government is suggesting that bypassing a feature that disables an iPhone after a certain number of failed password attempts could only be used once and on one device, that suggestion is “simply not true.” He says that once created, such a key could be used over and over again. “In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes,” Cook says.
The move, Cook says, would undermine Apple’s decades of work on security advancements that keep its customers safe. He notes the irony in asking Apple’s security engineers to purposefully weaken the protections they created. Apple says they found no precedent of an American company being forced to expose its customers, therefore putting them at a greater risk of attack. He notes that security experts have warned against weakening encryption as both bad guys and good guys would be able to take advantage of any potential weaknesses.
Finally, Cook says that the FBI is proposing what Apple calls an “unprecedented use” of the All Writs Act of 1789, which authorizes federal courts to issue all orders necessary or appropriate “in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” The chilling effect of this use, Cook argues, would allow the government power to capture data from any device or to require Apple to create a data collection program to intercept a customer’s data, potentially including infringements like using a phone’s camera or microphone without user knowledge.
Cook concludes Apple’s open letter by saying the company’s opposition to the order is not an action they took lightly and that they challenge the request “with the deepest respect for democracy and a love for our country.” Ultimately, Apple fears these demands would “undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”
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