Apple refuses to unlock terrorist’s iPhone for FBI inquiry

This article originally appeared in The Student, a weekly British independent newspaper produced by students at the University of Edinburgh. The Student is the U.K.’s oldest student newspaper. Whilst studying my postgraduate degree, I contributed as a Science & Technology writer.

Apple CEO Timothy Cook says he will not be bullied into setting a “dangerous precedent”, as Apple and the US administration continue fighting over cybersecurity and homeland security.

In the matter of the San Bernardino, California case, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have been unable to crack the passcode of an iPhone 5c belonging to one of the shooters. The FBI wants Apple to create a new version of the iPhone’s operating system which would bypass current iPhone security features, enabling the FBI to forcibly unlock the phone and access the handset’s data for their investigation.

14 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured, in what the US is describing as a terrorist attack, when married couple, American Syed Rizwan Farook and his Pakistani wife Tashfeen Malik, opened fire upon the holiday party for Forook’s workplace, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. Hours after fleeing the scene, the couple were killed by police in a shootout.

In a letter posted on Apple.com on February 16, Tim Cook said the company has provided all the data that was in its possession and cooperated in every fashion within the law: “But now the US government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create”, explained the Apple CEO: “They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

Cook continues: “In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession”.

The statement came after two-month talks between attorneys for the Obama administration and Apple collapsed, thus causing the US Justice Department to request a magistrate judge to order Apple to write the necessary code needed to unlock the iPhone. In doing so, the government evoked federal statute ‘All Writs Act of 1789’, which has been issued by the government in recent years to gain access to smartphones – most notably in 2014 with US Government v XXX and United States of America v Apple.

Instead, Cook has launched a PR campaign in defence of his resistance, which he says is in the name of civil liberties and global cybersecurity. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has publicly aligned with Cook.

Apple admits to having the technology and capability to write the software but has refused to comply, and officially responded to the court order on Thursday.

According to court documents, if written, the code would bypass or disable the protective auto-erase function (whether or not that feature has been enabled) which would help the FBI to submit a series of tests in guessing the iPhone’s passcode. In the response, Apple said it would have to essentially hand over the proposed technology to the FBI, called the compliance “unreasonably burdensome”, and drew on previous cases of government records being hacked as points of concern. The documents also noted that US government officials had already changed the password for the phone’s iCloud without consulting Apple first, which may have granted them access to the data without having needing to unlock the iPhone.

In his letter, Cook called the implications of the government’s demands “chilling”: “While the government may argue that [the proposed operating system’s] use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control”, wrote Cook: “The government could extend this breach of privacy and 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.”

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