Apple CEO Tim Cook has been a high-profile champion of encryption — now his company is embroiled in what could be a defining case in the battle over privacy vs. national security.
In a letter published on the company website Tuesday night, Cook said Apple is opposing a magistrate court judge’s Tuesday order to help the government hack into the encrypted iPhone of Syed Farook, one of the killers in a December attack in San Bernardino that killed 14 people. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik — who reportedly had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State — later died in a shootout with the police.
Farook’s phone reportedly was running the newest version of Apple’s iOS, which can’t be unlocked without a passcode. Now the FBI wants Apple to provide it with software that will keep the agency from getting locked out of Farook’s iPhone if it enters the wrong passcode too many times.
“The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create,” Cook says in his letter. “They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”
Talk about “backdoors” has been on the rise since the 2013 revelations of mass spying by U.S. and other governments, aided by electronic communications, the Internet and technology made by Silicon Valley companies. Apple, Google, Facebook and others have denied providing backdoors to their users’ personal information.
In 2014, Apple and then Google enabled encryption by default on iPhones and Android phones. This has prompted complaints from people such as FBI Director James Comey, who say the rise in encryption is a hindrance to criminal and terrorist investigations. Recently, though, Comey has tried to strike a more conciliatory tone, saying that the government doesn’t want backdoors, it wants companies to comply with a judge’s order when needed.
In his letter, Cook repeats his longstanding argument that building technology to circumvent the encryption on iPhones would be a threat to privacy and security.
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.
How might Apple’s stance be received by the public?
Note that Cook didn’t say Apple couldn’t build the technology to help the government — at least one security firm claims it is technically possible — he’s saying it won’t.
Recently, a Forrester analyst said he thought any company that stands up to the government on privacy would be seen as heroic.
A digital rights advocacy group, Fight for the Future, on Wednesday called for protests outside Apple stores throughout the country on Feb. 23 “to demand that the U.S. government drop its dangerous request.”
Cook says in the letter that Apple is fighting “what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government,” but he also makes sure to include: “We have no sympathy for terrorists.”
But Apple is “risking a lot given the sensitivity of the San Bernardino case,” said Darren R. Hayes, assistant professor and director of cybersecurity at Seidenberg School of CSIS at Pace University in New York. “It risks the tide of public opinion swaying.”
In a phone interview with SiliconBeat, Hayes said Apple’s stand might also push Congress to “change legislation to push companies to develop technologies to facilitate” law enforcement investigations.
Hayes also said he found it interesting that Apple is making this strong stand now considering “what law enforcement has been asking for is for the company to revert back to key management” — in other words, to go back to the time a couple of years ago when Apple could comply with such requests to unlock phones.
The ACLU said this morning it would support Apple’s position. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based Internet rights advocacy group, also said it plans to file an amicus brief to support Apple’s position.
“Essentially, the government is asking Apple to create a master key so that it can open a single phone,” Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director and general counsel for the EFF, writes in a post on the group’s website. “And once that master key is created, we’re certain that our government will ask for it again and again, for other phones, and turn this power against any software or device that has the audacity to offer strong security.”
Photo: Apple CEO Tim Cook in March 2015. (Associated Press)