Tim Cook has written a public letter criticising the US government for threatening “the security of our customers” while explaining why he is refusing to comply with a federal court order to help the FBI unlock an iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.
In the letter, posted on the company’s website and headlined A Message to our Customers, Apple’s chief executive said: “This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake.”
He said Apple is being asked to take “an unprecedented step…we oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.”
The tech giant has been ordered to help the FBI, which wants to know more about the motives and background behind the shooting which killed 14, access the iPhone by building a bespoke operating system with fewer security features. Current security features, which have been in place since 2014, mean agents risk losing any data on the phone permanently if they make more than ten failed attempts to guess the passcode.
The government has, among other demands, asked to allow a passcode to be inputted electronically, which would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by “brute force”, especially with modern computers that are able to try thousands or millions of combinations.
Explaining his stand, Cook said: “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.
“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.”
Cook cited grave personal data concerns and the security of users for the order challenge, explaining his stance by saying: “Smartphones, led by iPhone, have become an essential part of our lives. People use them to store an incredible amount of personal information, from our private conversations to our photos, our music, our notes, our calendars and contacts, our financial information and health data, even where we have been and where we are going.
“All that information needs to be protected from hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission. Customers expect Apple and other technology companies to do everything in our power to protect their personal information, and at Apple we are deeply committed to safeguarding their data.
“Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk. That is why encryption has become so important to all of us.
He added: “For many years, we have used encryption to protect our customers’ personal data because we believe it’s the only way to keep their information safe. We have even put that data out of our own reach, because we believe the contents of your iPhone are none of our business.”
He was clear that Apple is “shocked and outraged by the deadly act of terrorism in San Bernardino and has “no sympathy for terrorists”, adding: ” The FBI asked us for help in the days following the attack, and we have worked hard to support the government’s efforts to solve this horrible crime.”, including complying with requests for “data that’s in our possession.
He stressed: “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 that has come to an end now “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.We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack.”
Looking to the future, he added: “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.
“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.
“Opposing this 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 U.S. government.”
Apple is now likely to file an appeal, triggering a fight that could end up in the Supreme Court – and a battle that will be keenly observed at all stages by those on both sides of the data privacy debate.