Apple has refused to build special software to enable the FBI to bypass the security of one of its devices, despite orders from a US District Court.
The Los Angeles Court ruled on Tuesday that the electronics giant has to help FBI investigators to access the iPhone 5C used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the perpetrators of the December 2015 San Bernandino massacre.
The investigators are investigating Farook’s links to the Islamic State and believe the smartphone is likely holding vital keys. However, they have been unable to get past the device’s inbuilt security, namely the auto-erase function, which wipes out the device after ten wrong password entries.
In reaction to the Tuesday ruling, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook wrote on the company’s website that following the order would set a dangerous precedent possibly opening a backdoor for anyone in possession of the tool to access an unlimited number of devices.
“Specifically, 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,” he said. “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 government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices.”
Both Apple and Google have been beefing up security measures to protect their operating systems since the 2014 revelations of widespread digital surveillance practices of the US and UK security agencies.
However, US government officials have warned that the expanded use of strong encryption is threatening national security and hindering criminal investigations, as it prevents investigators from accessing data on a device even if there is a good reason to do that.
In the San Bernardino case, the FBI asked the court to order Apple to comply with their requirements, saying: "Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search, but has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily.”
Cook said that Apple has been cooperating with the FBI, providing data in the firm's possession, as well as making its engineers available to assist with the investigation.
“We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good,” he said. “Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the US government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create.”
The system the FBI is seeking would allow passcodes being input electronically, making it easier to perform a brute force attack that enters thousands or millions of possible combinations with a speed of a modern computer.
Cook said the court’s decision should be carefully considered including all its implications.
“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,” Cook said. “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."
Technology experts and privacy advocates are taking Apple’s side, saying that forcing US companies to weaken their encryption would not only make private data vulnerable to hackers and undermine the security of the Internet but also give a competitive advantage to companies in other countries.
The San Bernardino shooting, carried out by Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik, was the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. 14 people were killed in the rampage. The perpetrators were later shot by police.