Apple fights FBI over encryption "We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government."

Photo by Sama Askari

It is a common trope of fiction for mankind to create something which it cannot fully control. The reality of such a creation is definitely on the minds of those in charge at Apple Inc.

On Feb. 16, 2016 the Central District Court of California, on behalf of the FBI, filed a formal request that the company behind the iPhone help them break into the device. Specifically, this would be for the iPhone 5c recovered from Syed Farook, one of the alleged perpetrators of the attack on San Bernadino, Calif. in Dec. 2015.  The detailed request would compel them to create a way to override the passcode function of the phone, as well as disable the security wipe feature that comes from too many failed attempts. Apple initially had five days to respond to the government request. This has now been extended to Feb 26, according to TechCrunch.

Before this time had passed however, the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a motion in an attempt to compel Apple to comply. Failure to listen to the request does not carry any penalties according to Reuters, though the DOJ declined to comment to them on further actions.

iPhone banner by Sama Askari

Within less than a day Apple CEO Tim Cook posted a letter on the company’s website. In the letter, Cook says the government’s request is not reasonable. Apple has stated on multiple occasions that they do not have access to a customer passcode, which unlocks the encryption on the device. The creation of such a workaround, the letter states, is not worth the security risk. “The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have,” Cook states, “and something we consider too dangerous to create”. While the tool to bypass it could be used in this single instance, once created it cannot be undone. The letter equates this to a “master key” that is capable of unlocking data from any iPhone.

The court’s main arguments fall under its use of the All Writs Act as well as the device being the property of Farook’s employer. The act was originally part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 and gave the government the ability to “appropriate aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the urges and principals of the law”. In their view, they are well within their rights to request Apple’s assistance on this case. In his letter, Cook does make a point that the company has been forthright in providing help. They have complied with warrants and made engineers available to advise the FBI in their case.

“The U.S. Government has asked us for … something we consider too dangerous to create” – Tim Cook

Privacy Advocates have come to Apple’s defense in the case. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a U.S. non-profit group focused on digital rights, has stated that they will support the company regarding any litigation. Another digital rights organization, Fight for the Future, has also stated their support and has started organizing protests outside of Apple Store locations to raise public awareness. They also stated they want the government to drop it’s request. The first of these protests will begin on Tuesday Feb. 23.

Apple has also seen support from rivals. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, came out in support of Tim Cook’s letter on Twitter. Like Cook, Pichai stated that companies like Google comply with government requests but that following through with this type of request “could be a troubling precedent”.

The company made headlines in 2014 with the release of iOS 8 where it first included passcode-based encryption. Since then, Apple has stated they have no access to devices programmed with a user chosen key.

Towards the end of the letter, Cook stated that Apple saw this refusal as an example of standing up for their country. “Ultimately”, Cook concluded, “we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect”.

About the author

R.C. Beiler

Robert Beiler is a journalist from Lancaster, Pennsylvania who serves as Editor-in-Chief for CommonGeek. He is also the former Editor-in-Chief of Live Wire Lancaster. He can sleep when he's dead.