Apple CEO Tim Cook fired back against a judge’s order to help the FBI unlock a cellphone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists. Cook sent out a letter to Apple customers saying that a move would undermine encryption by creating a backdoor that could potentially be used on future devices.
Apple’s letter was a direct response to an order issued by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym ordering the tech company to help the White House break into an encrypted iPhone belonging to the terrorist. The letter called for a public discussion on the order, saying the company was “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,” the letter said.
The standoff is the latest flashpoint in an intensifying debate between law enforcement and the tech industry over encryption. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in the December shooting. The couple, radical Islamists who supported ISIS, later died in a shootout with police. Investigators had obtained permission to retrieve data from the phone but had been unable to search the device as it had been locked with a user-generated numeric passcode. Apple’s operating systems included an auto-erase function that, when enabled, would result in the information on the phone being permanently wiped after 10 failed attempts at inputting the passcode, the government wrote in documents seeking the order.
We have made a solemn commitment to the victims and their families that we will leave no stone unturned as we gather as much information and evidence as possible. These victims and families deserve nothing less,” Eileen Decker, U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, said in a statement in response to the court order.
Apple said the FBI had requested that the tech giant produce a new version of the iPhone operating system that circumvented key security features to install on Farook’s phone. “In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession,” Cook’s letter said. Cook concludes the letter saying:
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.”
The couple took pains to physically destroy two personally owned cell phones, crushing them beyond the FBI’s ability to recover information from them. They also removed a hard drive from their computer; it has not been found despite investigators diving for days for potential electronic evidence in a nearby lake.
Farook was not carrying his work iPhone during the attack. It was discovered after a subsequent search. It was not known whether Farook forgot about the iPhone or did not care whether investigators found it. FBI Director James Comey told members of Congress last week that investigators in the case had been unable to access a phone in the California case but provided no details. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gave his take on the standoff Wednesday, saying Apple should comply with the judge’s order.