'Watershed Moment for Privacy' as Apple Refuses FBI Order to Create iPhone Backdoor

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'Watershed Moment for Privacy' as Apple Refuses FBI Order to Create iPhone Backdoor

Apple president Tim Cook calls government demand 'chilling,' argues that it threatens the security and rights of people worldwide

"The U.S. government wants us to trust that it won't misuse this power," states the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But we can all imagine the myriad ways this new authority could be abused." (Photo: Gabriele Barni/cc/flickr)

Technology behemoth Apple is taking a hard stand against the U.S. government in a case it says could set a dangerous precedent for government overreach after a federal court ruled Tuesday that the company must assist the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and break into an iPhone recovered from one of the suspected San Bernardino shooters.

In an open letter posted online, Apple president Tim Cook states that the company opposes the court order (pdf), which essentially demands that Apple build a "backdoor to the iPhone." Such a move, Cook says, not only "threatens the security of our customers" but would have "implications far beyond the legal case at hand."

There's something in the air...

Cook continues:

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.

While Cook states outright that he has "no sympathy for terrorists," he said that the "significance of what the company is demanding" threatens far greater damage to the American people.

"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." 
—Tim Cook, Apple president

"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," he continues. "We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack."

What's more, he argues that the order signals a potentially dangerous expansion of the FBI's authority.

"The implications of the government’s demands are chilling," Cook adds. "If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge."

Indeed, technology publication Gizmodo said this dispute "could prove to be a watershed moment for privacy in the U.S."

Digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is filing an amicus brief in support of Apple. In a statement, the group explains how "[e]ssentially, the government is asking Apple to create a master key so that it can open a single phone. And once that master key is created, we're certain that our government will ask for it again and again, for other phones, and turn this power against any software or device that has the audacity to offer strong security."

"The U.S. government wants us to trust that it won't misuse this power," EFF continues. "But we can all imagine the myriad ways this new authority could be abused. Even if you trust the U.S. government, once this master key is created, governments around the world will surely demand that Apple undermine the security of their citizens as well."

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