Yesterday, a United States district court judge ordered Apple to help the FBI access the smartphone of one of the perpetrators of the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernadino, California. Apple has responded with a letter to customers signed by company CEO Tim Cook, saying the order would “undermine the very freedoms and liberty” of the United States.
In the letter, published on Apple’s website, Cook wrote that the court order — which essentially forces Apple to create a backdoor method for the FBI to break security and encryption on the iPhone — was an overreach by the government, and one that will have far more dangerous and far-reaching consequences both for Apple and its hundreds of millions of customers around the world. He wrote, “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.”
In the ruling, handed down by Californian district court judge Sheri Pym, Apple has been ordered to assist the FBI in unlocking the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone by creating a custom firmware. That bespoke firmware, installed on the iPhone 5C used by Syed Rizwan Farook, would allow the FBI to repeatedly try different four-digit passcodes without triggering the phone’s auto-erase function nor enabling a lengthy delay between incorrectly entered passcodes — essentially a brute-force attack by software on the iPhone’s existing operating system.
Cook’s open letter to customers says that doing such a thing — creating an intentional compromise for the iPhone’s encryption — would be a gateway to allowing first the FBI, and eventually anyone with access to the tool, an open door into the iPhones of hundreds of millions of users around the world.
He wrote, “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.”
Apple has said for some time that since the introduction of iOS 8 in September 2014, even the company itself is unable to access any data on an encrypted iPhone, nor break any iPhone’s passcode security. [Apple]