Apple CEO Rejects Federal Court Order to Hack San Bernardino Terrorist iPhone

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 17, 2016

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Apple, Inc. may be headed for a showdown with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) regarding access to the personal cell phones of the two perpetrators of December’s terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, CA.   The company has publically taken a strong position of unwillingness to allow access to the iPhones used by the couple, setting up a potential legal challenge over privacy rights of digital devices.

Federal Judge Orders Apple to Assist FBI

As part of the investigation into the shooting attack perpetrated by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik which left 14 people dead, the FBI has been looking into every aspect of the couple’s life.  Farook and Malik were killed in a shootout with the police, so the Bureau has been conducting their investigation by examining property and personal documents which belonged to the terrorists, including their iPhones.  According to FBI Director James B. Comey, who has expressed concerns with Silicone Valley’s position on maintaining cell phone privacy, announced that investigators are still unable to access information contained on Farook’s iPhone because they cannot open the device.

On Tuesday a federal judge granted a request by the FBI and ordered Apple to assist with the investigation by providing “reasonable technical assistance,” which, according to the judicial order, means writing a program which disables the iPhone’s protection features.  Apple iPhones are equipped with a privacy program which wipes all the data on the phone after 10 incorrect tries to enter a password, and the feature has prevented the FBI from simply attempting millions of password combinations to unlock the device in what is known as a “brute force” hack.

Apple has steadfastly maintained that it will not write such a program, which would enable the company to access any phone, and announced shortly after the federal order that it would take all steps necessary to continue its resistance despite the ruling.

Apple Doubles Down on iPhone Privacy Protections

Although the software Apple has been compelled to write would uniquely be tailored to Farook’s iPhone, the company cautioned that if done once the technique could easily be replicated to bypass security of any personal device.  In a statement issued on the company’s website, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced the tech giant would continue its fight against the government’s attempts to access privately stored data on personal devices.

The statement, which can be read in its entirety here, summarizes the company’s efforts in the FBI’s ongoing investigation of the San Bernardino shootings before pointedly disagreeing with the court order and the general principal of allowing government officials to access personal devices. Writing that Apple’s decision to disobey the court order has implications beyond the case in question, Cook told customers, “We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now 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.”

Cook’s statement is worth a read as it summarizes the ongoing debate between Silicone Valley tech giants and the US government over privacy rights and law enforcement’s national security obligations. 

Apple San Bernardino Dispute Highlights Privacy Debate

Cook’s central argument in his opposition to the judicial order requiring Apple to design software to bypass a customer’s iPhone is that the government is asking for a master key to all private cellular devices, which, as Cook writes, would have far-reaching consequences.  According to Cook, “The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. 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.”

Apple’s ongoing refusal to provide software which accesses personal iPhones in defiance of a federal court order could be the tipping point in the privacy v security confrontation.  With some members of Congress calling for legislation which would force companies to provide access to private devices, the legal community is gearing up for a serious fight over personal privacy rights in an increasingly digital world.

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