Apple computers is resisting a U.S. government order to unlock its encrypted iPhone software to help the FBI examine a phone used by the militants who killed 14 people in a terrorist-style attack in California in December.
Apple's chief executive officer, Tim Cook, posted an open letter to the company's millions of customers Wednesday declaring the firm would challenge a court's order to devise new software that can defeat Apple's own security measures. The government's move is unprecedented and an "overreach," Cook said, and it has "chilling" implications for citizens' personal privacy.
"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 cyber criminals," Cook said. "The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone ... would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe."
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At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama views the encryption issue as "an important national priority," and fully supports the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice in their request to Apple.
Cook said Apple has no sympathy for terrorists and was outraged by the attack carried out in San Bernardino, California, last year by American-born Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, a native of Pakistan. Apple has given the Federal Bureau of Investigation any relevant data it possesses, complied with all legal subpoenas and search warrants, and has offered its engineers' advice to federal investigators, he added.
The Apple CEO said the software the FBI is seeking is "too dangerous to create," and does not exist today. Known as a "backdoor," this method of accessing data could unlock any iPhone, anywhere, Cook said.
"The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone," Cook said in his statement posted online. "But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. 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. No reasonable person would find that acceptable."
Apple strengthened encryption of its phones in 2014 amid increased public concern about digital privacy. The government has complained in the past that the higher security measures make criminal and national-security investigations more difficult.
Crack Farook's phone
The court order issued Tuesday gives Apple the option of providing the government with alternative ways to access Farook's phone, as long as the methods bypass the auto-erase feature that automatically erases all data on an iPhone when invalid passwords are entered multiple times. This would allow the FBI to guess passwords until it could penetrate the encrypted data. The government also stipulated that Apple's "backdoor" should ensure that no other software on iPhones would delay repeated password guesses.
With a new tool to bypass the auto-erase function, the FBI would be able eventually to unlock Farook's phone, which investigators believe would yield text messages, logs of telephone calls and web browsing data.
"While we believe the FBI's intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect," Cook wrote.
Rather than asking for legislative action by Congress, Cook said the FBI chose to propose "an unprecedented use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify an expansion of its authority."
"We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country," Cook wrote. "We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications."
China watching closely
China is closely watching the dispute, The New York Times reported Wednesday, adding that analysts say the Chinese government "does take cues" from the United States when it comes to encryption regulations.
Beijing backed down on several proposals last year that would have forced foreign firms to provide encryption keys for devices sold in China, after heavy pressure from foreign trade groups. But a Chinese anti-terrorism law passed in December requires foreign firms to hand over technical information and to aid with decryption when the police demand it in terrorism-related cases.
"While it is still not clear how the law might be carried out, it is possible a push from American law enforcement agencies to unlock iPhones would embolden Beijing to demand the same," The Times reported.