Apple CEO Tim Cook said the tech giant will fight a U.S. court order for the company to help the FBI access information stored on an iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino, Ca. shooters – a move that is being widely celebrated by privacy experts.
In a long-winded message addressed to Apple customers Wednesday, Cook explained the order would not only have implications far beyond the San Bernardino shooting investigation, it would present a direct threat to consumer data security.
“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,” Cook wrote.
“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.”
A U.S. magistrate judge ordered Apple to help the FBI hack into an encrypted iPhone used by Syed Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in December.
The ruling would require Apple to create special software that would allow the FBI to bypass the built-in self-destruct feature that erases the phone’s data after too many unsuccessful passcode attempts.
And while the Justice Department is only asking the company to help unlock Farook’s iPhone in particular, it’s unclear if the software could be adapted to hack other devices.
“Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes,” wrote Cook in the letter.
On Twitter, some privacy experts suggested that Apple’s firm stance on the order is a “defining moment” for the company, which has put a huge focus on encryption and security issues over the last year.
Chris Parsons, post-doctoral fellow with the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and cyber security expert, said he believes that Apple is genuinely dedicated to privacy – noting the company doesn’t run the same extensive advertising program as outfits like Google, who makes the Android operating system, so it doesn’t collect as much user data by default.
“Apple has very aggressively worked to secure some kinds of data that are collected and stored by iPhones,” said Parsons.
“This is demonstrating that Apple is very committed to trying to ensure that not just American users but its international users are not at risk of having their devices tampered with by Apple itself. The big thing about this decision is that it would force Apple to start writing software to undermine the security it puts in place.”
ESET senior security researcher Stephen Cobb agreed that complying with the FBI’s request would set a dangerous precedent for consumers.
“It has been suggested that the FBI is looking for a precedent, a legal ruling that would apply well beyond this single and very emotional case,” Cobb told Global News.
“However, if Apple were to comply with this court order, the ramifications for US companies and consumers would be significant, from undermining international commerce to eroding trust in the technology on which so much of daily life and business in North America depends.”
Which begs the question – could this happen in Canada?
In short, it already has in a way.
In 2007, Canadian company Hushmail – which touted itself as a more secure email provider – made modifications to its product in order to provide U.S. authorities with over 12 CDs worth of decrypted emails from three accounts linked to persons of interests.
According to a report by Wired, this was done following a court order obtained through a mutual assistance treaty between the U.S. and Canada.
“We have in the past implemented warrants that forced modifications; whether it would expand and apply to iPhones remains a relatively open question. I suspect if it happens here Apple will fight it,” said Parsons.
– With files from the Associated Press