What Do You Think? Apple Tells Feds It Won't Unlock Shooter's Phone

Wary of Creating a 'Master Key' to All Phones

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Tim Cook
Tim Cook Credit: Courtesy Apple

Apple Inc. rejected a court order to help U.S. investigators unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in a terrorist attack in California, accusing the U.S. government of "overreach" that will set a dangerous precedent.

In a letter published on Apple's website, CEO Tim Cook said the Federal Bureau of Investigation was seeking a new version of Apple's operating system that would circumvent security features and give law enforcement access to private data. Mr. Cook framed the demand as a "chilling attack" on civil liberties and warned that ultimately the government could "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."

Apple's forceful reaction to the court order dramatically escalates the battle between the tech industry and the government over encrypted data. Law enforcement authorities say they need a backdoor into private information to track terrorists like the duo who killed 14 people in San Bernardino in December; companies like Apple and Google say such a move would violate pledges to keep their customers' data safe and hurt their businesses.

Apple's opposition is already being turned into an issue on the presidential campaign trail, with Donald Trump telling Fox and Friends that he agrees "100 percent with the courts" and saying of Apple "Who do they think they are? They have to open it up."

Federal investigators haven't been able to unlock the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, who carried out the Dec. 2 shooting, the government said in a filing in federal court in Riverside, Calif. U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym on Tuesday ordered Apple to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to the FBI to recover information from the phone.

"While we believe the FBI's intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products," Mr. Cook wrote. "Ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect."

Ms. Pym gave Apple five business days to file court papers opposing the order. The loser – whether Apple or the Justice Department -- could then appeal to a district court judge in the same courthouse, and next to the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco and ultimately the Supreme Court.

The growing use of encryption is "overwhelmingly affecting law enforcement" when companies don't cooperate or sell equipment that can't be penetrated by investigators, FBI Director James Comey told the Senate intelligence committee in a Feb. 9 hearing.

"It is a big problem for law enforcement armed with a search warrant when you find a device that can't be opened, even though the judge said there's probable cause to open it," Mr. Comey said.

The case is significant because it shows a side of the encryption debate that is seldom discussed. Despite complaints from law enforcement and intelligence officials that encryption makes certain data off limits, agencies have workarounds for some of the most important cases.

Mr. Farook was using an iPhone 5c owned by the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health with an iOS 9 operating system. Mr. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29, were killed in a gun battle with police after the attack on his co-workers.

The Justice Department wants Apple to provide customized software that will prevent the data on the phone from being deleted after 10 attempts to input the passcode. The software also must enable agents to send electronic passcodes to the phone, rather than manually typing them in, according to the application.

The software would allow agents to automatically enter multiple passcodes to get around the encryption standards. Mr. Cook likened the federal order to creating a "master key" that could be used to unlock any number of other iPhones in use around the globe.

"What's being asked is a tool that only does this specific thing," said Bruce Schneir, who writes about computer security. "It's not fair. They can't build a specific tool. Once you build this universal key, suddenly we're all at risk."

Apple said it has provided help in the San Bernardino case, including providing data in its possession and offering ideas to investigators.

Apple has the ability to modify software that is created to only function within the subject device, prosecutors said in the application for the order. Apple controls the hardware and software that is used to turn on and run its phone, they said.

Los Angeles U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said federal investigators have "worked tirelessly to exhaust every investigative lead" related to the terrorist attack.

"The application filed today in federal court is another step -- a potentially important step -- in the process of learning everything we possibly can about the attack in San Bernardino," Ms. Decker said in a statement.

--Bloomberg News