Apple CEO Rejects Court Order to Create iPhone Backdoor

The debate over privacy and encryption accelerates as Apple opposes a call to help open the phone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook

In a case likely to set precedent for years to come, Apple is publicly opposing a court order to help unlock an encrypted county-owned iPhone 5c that was used by one of the suspects in a Dec. 2, 2015 mass shooting that killed 14 people and wounded 22 others in San Bernardino, Calif.

The court order from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California compels Apple to assist FBI agents. The court is asking Apple to "bypass or disable the auto-erase function."

Apple iOS devices have a security capability that will erase the contents of a device after a specified number of incorrect passcode attempts. The order states that Apple's reasonable technical assistance may include "providing the FBI with a signed iPhone Software file, recovery bundle or other Software Image File ("SIF") that can be loaded on the subject device."

Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in a publicly posted letter to customers that the company wants to help the FBI in its investigation but would not yield on its principles of user privacy to do so. Cook wrote that Apple has no sympathy for terrorists and has great respect for the FBI and its efforts. He added that in the weeks following the San Bernardino attack Apple has done everything it could to help the FBI with its investigation. "But now, the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create," Cook wrote. "They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone."

In Cook's view, what the court order requests is essentially a new version of iOS that is able to bypass existing Apple security capabilities. He warned that the new software could be very dangerous if the wrong people used it and could provide the ability to unlock any iPhone.

"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 wrote. "The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe."

The means by which the FBI has been granted the court order is though the use of an arcane element of U.S. law known as the all Writs Act of 1789. Cook said that the order represents an unprecedented use of the act.

"Opposing this order is not something we take lightly," Cook wrote. "We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an over-reach by the U.S. government."

It's not entirely clear yet how other technology vendors will react to the Apple showdown with the U.S. government.

Jeremiah Grossman, founder of WhiteHat Security, tweeted that today would be a good day for Google's CEO to back up Apple. Google's lack of response so far today, however, has been noticed by none-other than National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

"This is the most important tech case in a decade," Snowden wrote."Silence means @google picked a side, but it's not the public's. "

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to clarify the actual ownership of the iPhone that used by one of the suspects in a mass shooting Dec. 2, 2015 killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.