In a letter to customers, CEO Tim Cook says Apple will oppose a “chilling” request by the FBI, backed by a federal judge’s order, to use the All Writs Act of 1789 to force it to unlock the iPhone 5C used by Syed Rizwan Farook who, with his wife, killed 14 people in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., on Dec. 2.
The order “does not ask Apple to break the phone’s encryption but rather to disable the feature that wipes the data on the phone after 10 incorrect tries at entering a password. That way, the government can try to crack the password using ‘brute force’ — attempting tens of millions of combinations without risking the deletion of the data,” write J. Freedom du Lac and Ellen Nakashima for the Washington Post.
“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,” Cook writes. “And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”
The decision — “in the matter of an Apple iPhone seized during the execution of a search warrant on a black Lexus IS300 …” — was handed down by Judge Sheri Pym in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. It puts the court’s approval on an order drafted by the U.S. attorney.
The decision and Apple’s reaction is being spun in two ways, with variations.
A London Times headline proclaims: “Apple fights for terrorist’s privacy” and says the company “is on a collision course with security agencies across the world.” PC World, on the other hand, tells us “Tim Cook says Apple will oppose court order rather than hack customers.”
Beyond the headlines, the tech industry is also debating both the ruling and Apple’s reaction to it.
There’s been plenty of comment over whether, in making this ruling, the FBI is essentially asking Apple to create a backdoor solution that it can use in similar cases,” Jon Russell reports for TechCrunch. “Opinion is divided, however. Techdirt argues that the ultimate goal of the order is a backdoor, while research organization Errata Security claims that’s an overly active interpretation of the ruling.”
Cook says he “can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack.” Writing for Gizmodo, Jamie Condliffe predicts “many others will join the fight. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for instance, has already pledged its allegiance to the cause.”
The government is arguing that it needs “Apple to help it find the password and access ‘relevant, critical … data’ on cellphone of Farook,” explains Andrew Blankstein for NBC News. The iPhone in question is actually the property of Farook’s employer, San Bernardino County, which has consented to the search.
“‘Despite … a warrant authorizing the search,’ said prosecutors, ‘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.’”
In the letter dated yesterday but released early this morning, Cook maintains that such a move would undermine encryption by creating a backdoor that could potentially be used on other 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 writes.
“The tech industry and the White House have long been at odds over how much access government agencies should be given to private phone data,” James Queally and Brian Bennett point out in the Los Angeles Times. “Recently, [FBI Director James B.] Comey, Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch and other national security leaders met with representatives from Google, Apple and Facebook in San Jose to try and find common ground that would help investigators gain critical information about possible terror plots without compromising the privacy of the companies’ customers.
Apple has five days as of yesterday to respond to the order if it believes — as it clearly does — that compliance would be “unreasonably burdensome.”
As Condliffe writes, the outcome “could prove to be a watershed moment for privacy in the U.S.”