Apple CEO Defies U.S. Order to Hack iPhone of San Bernardino Shooting Suspect

Apple CEO Tim Cook
AGF s.r.l./REX Shutterstock

Tim Cook says tech giant will oppose government's request to 'hack our own users'

Apple CEO Tim Cook has issued a strongly worded statement that the company would not comply with a federal judge’s order to crack open an iPhone used by a suspect in December’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

The standoff could become a watershed digital privacy case. Cook, in an 1,100-word letter posted on Apple’s site Wednesday, said the order amounts to the U.S. government requesting that the company build a “backdoor” into the iPhone — “something we consider too dangerous to create.”

“The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers,” he wrote. “We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.”

A federal judge had granted the Justice Department’s request that Apple help unlock an iPhone 5C that was used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooting suspects. The Dec. 2 attack left 14 people dead and 22 others seriously wounded. The court instructed Apple to disable certain security measures of the iPhone so the FBI can obtain data stored on the device.

“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,” Cook said. “In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.” That could result in a “master key” that would threaten the security of millions of iPhones, he said.

In a briefing Wednesday, a White House spokesman disputed the notion that the DOJ is asking Apple to “create a new backdoor to its products.” The request is specific to the San Bernardino shooting, he said, to let law-enforcement officials learn “as much as they can about this one case,” Reuters reported.

Apple has cooperated with FBI requests following the San Bernardino incident, including providing “data that’s in our possession,” Cook added. But with the latest court order, he wrote, “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 cybercriminals.”

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  1. Didn’t TC says the tech does not currently exist?

  2. machack says:

    I find it interesting that creating a new OS would get them into this locked phone. Normally, one would need the same security password code to install a new OS. So does that mean apple has the ability to install software to security protected phones without the users permission or notification?

    • Bill says:

      It’s likely technologically possible, but isn’t now, which is part of the issue.

      DoJ claims the software will only be used once, on this phone, but once it exists what is the likelihood that they would allow Apple to delete it forever? Zero.

      All this move will do is increase the prevalence of third party apps to further encrypt user content; most terror cells already use PGP and/or AES to encrypt their communications so it’s doubtful even if Apple provides the software anything in clear text would be found.

      • machack says:

        Thanks Bill.

        I’m sure apple has a hundred ways into an iPhone that already circumvents the user’s approval. certainly information goes out that we don’t know about so that same avenue could certainly be used as a two way street. I am guessing that apple’s vigilance is more about protecting what we don’t know about their access to an iPhone than it is about privacy rights for the consumer. That’s why i find it interesting that they are suggesting a new OS. Why would they even suggest installing a new OS into this phone if it wasn’t possible? If it wasn’t, there argument would be a lot simpler, “We can’t because it’s not possible.”

        while were at it, here’s a fun question:

        If the courts issued a search warrant for an apartment, certainly the apartment manager would be obligated to provide a key to open that door.

        But if the apartment door was the most secure door in the world, made of steel and unbreakable. Would the apartment manager be able to refuse them the key? And if she didn’t have one, could the courts issue and order for the manufacturer of the door to make another one?

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