Apple fights FBI over disabling security in San Bernadino case
The FBI wants Apple to help it crack the passcode of an iPhone owned by one of the shooters in the December San Bernardino attack that killed 14 people. But CEO Tim Cook says this demand would “undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”
In an open letter to Apple customers published Tuesday evening, CEO Tim Cook said the company is challenging a court order directing it to assist the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The company was reportedly asked to help the FBI bypass security measures that protect data stored on a locked iPhone.
The FBI is trying to access the data on the iPhone of Syed Farook who, with wife Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December 2015. The agency believes that data on the phone may provide useful information about other potential threats or co-conspirators. But investigators have been unable to examine the phone’s data because the device is protected by a numeric passcode, according to a Department of Justice legal filing. And the FBI has not tried to guess the passcode because Apple’s iPhone software includes a security feature that deletes data after 10 incorrect passcode entries.
The device, an iPhone 5c, belongs to the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, which provided it to Farook as an employee and has consented to the government’s search. The FBI has already obtained some data from Apple’s iCloud service, with Apple’s cooperation. But the government contends that Farook disabled the automatic iCloud backup of his iPhone data at some point, thereby preventing more recent data from being stored on Apple’s servers.
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“We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good,” Cook said in his letter. “Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the US 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.”
For years, law enforcement officials have sought government-mandated backdoors to bypass encryption. FBI Director James Comey last year testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the way that encryption can hinder investigations. Security experts and academic researchers have countered that backdoors cannot be controlled and will inevitably be misused. Comey has warned that encryption allows criminals to “go dark.” At the same time, Peter Swire, professor of law and ethics at Georgia Institute of Technology, has argued that surveillance and data gathering have never been easier. The debate remains ongoing.
However, the Obama administration has opted not to mandate backdoors to bypass digital security measures. And Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has introduced a bill that seeks to prohibit the government from requiring weak security.
Apple, in its privacy statement about government information requests, acknowledges that it complies with lawful legal demands for information that it possesses. But the company maintains it “has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a ‘backdoor’ in any of our products or services.”