The Cable

Apple Refuses Court Order to Unlock San Bernardino Shooter’s Phone

The FBI wants the tech giant to make a backdoor for encrypted data stored on an iPhone.


An iPhone 5c linked to a December husband-wife shooting spree that left 14 people dead in San Bernardino, Calif., is the new front in Washington’s war with Silicon Valley over how much access the government should have to encrypted technology in the name of national security.

U.S. District Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym has ordered Apple Inc. to give the FBI technical assistance to unlock the phone belonging to gunman Syed Rizwan Farook, who was killed in a shootout with police. The FBI says it cannot access the contents of the phone, which are protected by a passcode, and the feds have so far been unable to bypass Apple’s security systems.

Apple says it will refuse to comply with the order, handed down Tuesday in U.S. District Court in central California. In a letter to Apple customers, CEO Tim Cook said his customers’ privacy should not be sacrificed for the sake of FBI investigations. Apple will appeal the ruling.

“While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products,” Cook wrote. “And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

For months, FBI Director James Comey has said the increasing availability of encrypted communications and devices poses a huge roadblock to federal investigators seeking to combat crime and terrorism. After Edward Snowden revealed the extent of American surveillance operations, companies such as Apple and Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service have built strong encryption into their products — both to protect user privacy and push back against fears that U.S. technology giants are being used for government spycraft.

Embracing strong means of encryption prevents companies like Apple from complying with court orders to provide scrambled data stored on a phone. That’s left Comey and officials throughout the government furious at Apple for designing products that essentially lock out law enforcement.

The San Bernardino case will now test whether Apple is required to bypass its own security systems by providing technical assistance to the FBI. The court order asks Apple to bypass several key security features of its iOS operating system to allow the FBI to input an unlimited number of passcode guesses for the phone.

Typically, iOS limits the number of passcodes a user can enter before user data is automatically erased. Pym ordered Apple to suspend this requirement and to also build a version of iOS that allows the FBI to guess passcodes via a computer plugged into the phone. It would also eliminate any enforced delays between passcode guesses. Essentially, the FBI is seeking a new version of iOS that grants the bureau the technical capability to open the phone by brute force guessing, or entering millions of password guesses until the computer stumbles on the right one. One security expert joked that Pym is asking Apple to build an FBiOS.

In his letter, Cook argued that this would create what he calls a backdoor into Apple products. “Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices,” he wrote. “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. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

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Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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