Apple Balks at 'Hacking' iPhones

Apple CEO Tim Cook says Apple will not comply with an FBI-secured court order to create an iPhone encryption back-door, saying the government "is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers."

Cook said in an online "message to our customers" that the FBI wants it to "make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the [San Bernardino shootings] investigation."

Cook said that when the FBI requests data from the company that is in its possession, it complies, and believes the bureau's intentions are good in this instance as well. But he said the government is asking for something it does not have and would be dangerous to create. "In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession," he said. "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."

Cook says the back door is not a simple solution to be used once on one phone. The government suggests that is the case, he said, but that is "simply not true."

Law enforcement has been pushing tech companies to create encryption back doors so it can investigate terrorism or in cases of imminent threats to life or safety.

Last month, the Department of Justice was stumping for encryption back doors at the State of the Net conference in Washington.

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said on CNN that it is the government's responsibility to make sure Apple provides the work-around so the cell phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters can be examined. If Apple does not cooperate, she said, she is prepared to legislate it into compliance.

Fight for the Future, a big critic of government surveillance in general said Wednesday (Feb. 17) that it was organizing protests at Apple stores in opposition to the government move.

They called on iPhone users and other supporters to rally outside Apple stores Feb. 23, a week after Tuesday's court order was issued.

Apple was getting some applause from tech groups for its strong stand against encryption circumvention.

“It’s a sad state of affairs when Americans have to rely on private companies to protect our constitutional rights against the government, but apparently that’s where we are," said Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation. "That’s why I commend Tim Cook of Apple for his strong statement opposing the FBI’s overly broad demand for a tool that would allow them to break encryption on any iPhone in the world."

"The court is ordering Apple to create a backdoor into an iPhone’s operating system, citing a law adopted in 1789," said Greg Nojeim, director of the Freedom, Security and Technology Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology. "If the order stands, the defective operating system (iOS) could be installed over any existing version of iOS, enabling law enforcement officials to guess the password on a cell phone. If the order stands, Apple and other technology companies could be ordered to build backdoors – essentially defects – into other devices, rendering them insecure and vulnerable to attack by law enforcement and by others as well. We will fight against this result."

“The FBI is trying to hit the ultimate reset button on privacy, turning the clock back to a time even before the Fourth Amendment’s warrant protections,” said Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.