Apple refuses court order to break San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone

Apple Inc. is refusing to comply with a U.S. court order requiring the company to create a specialty version of its iOS software that could be used by the FBI to break into San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook’s iPhone.

While acknowledging the “good” intentions behind the request, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in a public letter posted on Feb. 16 that by complying with the order, Apple would be creating a universal “backdoor” – which does not currently exist – that could be used by hackers and governments alike to access any information stored on any iPhone around the world.

“While the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control,” Cook wrote. “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,” he continued. “We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.”

Cook’s statement reinforces the hard stance that Apple has taken regarding data security since 2014, when it suffered a public relations disaster with the widely-publicized hacking of hundreds of celebrity iCloud accounts – and denied that any flaws in its security were to blame. However, the company released an iOS update in September 2014 that made it impossible for anyone except an iPhone or iPad’s user to access data stored on their device.

In the case of the December 2, 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, in which Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people and wounded 21 others, the company has complied with a series of subpoenas and search warrants by providing data that was backed up on the company’s iCloud servers – a feature Farook apparently turned off approximately six weeks before the attack – and making its engineers available to investigators.

“We have no sympathy for terrorists,” Cook wrote.

However, the FBI’s current request “would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes,” he wrote. “No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

Cook’s statement could be walking a fine public relations line: According to a Pew Research Centre survey released in May 2015, 54 per cent of Americans disapprove of the U.S. government collecting telephone and Internet data for anti-terrorism purposes, and 74 per cent said they should not give up privacy and freedom for the sake of safety. Yet a significant percentage – 49 per cent – also said that anti-terrorism policies don’t go far enough to adequately protect U.S. citizens, compared to the 37 per cent concerned that anti-terrorism policies have gone too far in restricting civil liberties – a sentiment Cook evoked at the end of his letter.

“We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country,” he wrote. “We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.”

At least one organization already has, with digital rights group Fight for the Future announcing today that rallies would be held protesting the order at Apple Stores across the U.S. on Feb. 23.

“Governments have been frothing at the mouth hoping for an opportunity to pressure companies like Apple into building backdoors into their products to enable more sweeping surveillance,” Fight for the Future campaign director Evan Greer was quoted as saying in the group’s announcement. “It’s shameful that they’re exploiting the tragedy in San Bernardino to push that agenda.”

WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum has also publicly supported Apple’s decision, stating that he “couldn’t agree more” with Cook’s statement in a Feb. 17 Facebook post.

“We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set,” Koum wrote. “Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of ITBusiness.ca turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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