Apple CEO Tim Cook has posted a public letter in response to a California judge's order to help the Justice Department unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters. Cook said that Apple would not comply with the order, stating that it was an "unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers."
The government is asking Apple to bypass the auto-erase function when the passcode is entered more than ten times, giving investigators the ability to submit an unlimited number of passcodes as they try to unlock an iPhone 5c that belonged to Syed Farook.
Cook said that while Apple is willing to assist the FBI in its inquiries by providing "data that's in our possession," it would not participate in creating a backdoor that circumvents the security capabilities of iOS:
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.
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 said that the FBI's use of the All Writs Act to demand the data sets a "dangerous precedent:"
The government would have us remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by "brute force," trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer.
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.
We are challenging the FBI's demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.
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 has been a long-term proponent of privacy and encryption, often stating that customer data should not be exploited for commercial gain. Speaking at last year's Champions of Freedom Awards Dinner, Cook said:
We believe the customer should be in control of their own information. You might like these so-called free services, but we don't think they're worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for god knows what advertising purpose. And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is.
There's another attack on our civil liberties that we see heating up every day — it's the battle over encryption. Some in Washington are hoping to undermine the ability of ordinary citizens to encrypt their data.
We think this is incredibly dangerous. We've been offering encryption tools in our products for years, and we're going to stay on that path. We think it's a critical feature for our customers who want to keep their data secure. For years we've offered encryption services like iMessage and FaceTime because we believe the contents of your text messages and your video chats is none of our business.