Tim Cook publishes open letter defending liberty after FBI request to help unlock iPhone

17 February 2016, 01:36

Apple’s unyielding obstinacy in the face of government pressure to compromise its data encryption protocols reached a new level yesterday when CEO Tim Cook published an open letter outlining Apple’s refusal, and calling for a public discussion on the matter.

The open letter comes in response to the FBI’s request that Apple help it unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. Several news outlets have incorrectly reported that the FBI has requested Apple unlock the device. However, the FBI is specifically asking for technical assistance so they can do so themselves.

Specifically, the FBI requests that Apple turns off the iPhone’s lock-out protection that means the device is wiped after 10 incorrect attempts are made to enter the 4-digit passcode. They also request that Apple turns off the delay that occurs when a wrong code is entered, in order to let them use software to brute force guess the iPhone’s passcode by attempting all 10,000 of the possible 4-digit codes.

In the letter, Cook points out that Apple has already helped the FBI with the investigation and continues to do so:

When the FBI has requested data that’s in our possession, we have provided it. Apple complies with valid subpoenas and search warrants, as we have in the San Bernardino case. We have also made Apple engineers available to advise the FBI, and we’ve offered our best ideas on a number of investigative options at their disposal.

However, Cook claims complying with the latest request would set a dangerous precedent:

… 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. […] 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.

Cook makes no bones about Apple’s position:

Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government. We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. […] it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.

Bitter battle lines over encryption were drawn last year when 50 tech companies including Apple, Facebook and Google published an open letter to President Obama, requesting his administration “promote rather than undermine the widespread adoption of strong encryption technologies”. Earlier this year campaigners from Security For All, a group with members from more than 42 countries and over 190 civil rights groups, published an open letter asking that “governments should not mandate the design or implementation of “backdoors” or vulnerabilities into tools, technologies, or services.”

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