Apple CEO Tim Cook has sent a memo to all employees explaining why the company is resisting an FBI request to decrypt an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.
The memo was obtained by BuzzFeed’s John Paczkowski. In it, Cook says the FBI should withdraw its demand to have the Cupertino, California, company develop a tool to help it break into the iPhone: “At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties,” he writes.
A court last week ordered Apple to comply, but the company is challenging the order. The FBI says it needs to access the phone’s encrypted data to find more about the killers (and to potentially avoid future attacks), while Apple argues that complying would create a dangerous precedent.
Apple is calling for the government to launch a commission of experts to examine the effects of encryption technology on law enforcement.
“We feel the best way forward would be for the government to withdraw its demands under the All Writs Act and, as some in Congress have proposed, form a commission or other panel of experts on intelligence, technology and civil liberties to discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy and personal freedoms,” Cook writes to employees. “Apple would gladly participate in such an effort.”
War of words
Apple and the FBI have been trading public barbs since the court order last week. Cook began by publishing an open letter to Apple’s website warning that complying would make users less safe.
“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 wrote. “We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack.”
On Sunday, FBI Director James Comey responded in a blog post. He said: “The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice. Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined.”
Nonetheless, lawyers and advocacy groups have expressed concerns about the precedent the case could set. Kevin Bankston, director of the nonprofit New America’s Open Technology Institute, previously told Business Insider he thought the issue was indeed about a precedent. “What the court is essentially ordering Apple to do is custom-build malware to undermine its own product’s security features and then cryptographically sign that software so the iPhone will trust it as coming from Apple,” he said.
“If a court can legally compel Apple to do that, then it likely could also legally compel any other software provider to do the same, including compelling the secret installation of malware via automatic updates to your phone or laptop’s operating system or other software.
“In other words, this isn’t just about one iPhone — it’s about all of our software and all of our digital devices, and if this precedent gets set, it will spell digital disaster for the trustworthiness of everyone’s computers and mobile phones.”
Apple’s friends — and enemies
Facebook, Google, and Twitter have all expressed support for Apple in its legal battle.
Facebook said in a statement that the company would “continue to fight aggressively against requirements for companies to weaken the security of their systems.”
“These demands would create a chilling precedent and obstruct companies’ efforts to secure their products,” it continued.
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, said: “We know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism. We build secure products to keep your information safe, and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices and data. Could be a troubling precedent.”
But many argue that Apple has a duty to aid law enforcement. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner, has called for Americans to boycott Apple until it complies.
And Reuters reports that victims of the San Bernardino attack will call on Apple to assist the FBI.
Apple denies this is a marketing ploy
On Monday, Apple added a FAQ section to its website about the San Bernardino case. It explains a little more about its reasons for opposing the order: security risks and legal precedent. Here it is (emphasis ours):
First, the government would have us write an entirely new operating system for their use. They are asking Apple to remove security features and add a new ability to the operating system to attack iPhone encryption, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by “brute force,” trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer.
We built strong security into the iPhone because people carry so much personal information on our phones today, and there are new data breaches every week affecting individuals, companies and governments. The passcode lock and requirement for manual entry of the passcode are at the heart of the safeguards we have built in to iOS. It would be wrong to intentionally weaken our products with a government-ordered backdoor. If we lose control of our data, we put both our privacy and our safety at risk.
Second, the order would set a legal precedent that would expand the powers of the government and we simply don’t know where that would lead us. Should the government be allowed to order us to create other capabilities for surveillance purposes, such as recording conversations or location tracking? This would set a very dangerous precedent.
The company also denies that its objections are based on its marketing strategy. (The company has garnered a lot of positive PR over its stance on customer privacy.) “Nothing could be further from the truth,” it says.
Here’s the full memo, via BuzzFeed:
Last week we asked our customers and people across the United States to join a public dialogue about important issues facing our country. In the week since that letter, I’ve been grateful for the thought and discussion we’ve heard and read, as well as the outpouring of support we’ve received from across America.
As individuals and as a company, we have no tolerance or sympathy for terrorists. When they commit unspeakable acts like the tragic attacks in San Bernardino, we work to help the authorities pursue justice for the victims. And that’s exactly what we did.
This case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation, so when we received the government’s order we knew we had to speak out. At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties.
As you know, we use encryption to protect our customers — whose data is under siege. We work hard to improve security with every software release because the threats are becoming more frequent and more sophisticated all the time.
Some advocates of the government’s order want us to roll back data protections to iOS 7, which we released in September 2013. Starting with iOS 8, we began encrypting data in a way that not even the iPhone itself can read without the user’s passcode, so if it is lost or stolen, our personal data, conversations, financial and health information are far more secure. We all know that turning back the clock on that progress would be a terrible idea.
Our fellow citizens know it, too. Over the past week I’ve received messages from thousands of people in all 50 states, and the overwhelming majority are writing to voice their strong support. One email was from a 13-year-old app developer who thanked us for standing up for “all future generations.” And a 30-year Army veteran told me, “Like my freedom, I will always consider my privacy as a treasure.”
I’ve also heard from many of you and I am especially grateful for your support.
Many people still have questions about the case and we want to make sure they understand the facts. So today we are posting answers on apple.com/customer-letter/answers/ to provide more information on this issue. I encourage you to read them.
Apple is a uniquely American company. It does not feel right to be on the opposite side of the government in a case centering on the freedoms and liberties that government is meant to protect.
Our country has always been strongest when we come together. We feel the best way forward would be for the government to withdraw its demands under the All Writs Act and, as some in Congress have proposed, form a commission or other panel of experts on intelligence, technology and civil liberties to discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy and personal freedoms. Apple would gladly participate in such an effort.
People trust Apple to keep their data safe, and that data is an increasingly important part of everyone’s lives. You do an incredible job protecting them with the features we design into our products. Thank you.
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