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

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

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

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.”