Last night, a California court ordered Apple to assist the FBI in hacking an iPhone. It’s an unprecedented request, one with potentially huge repercussions for the privacy and security of every Apple customer. This morning, Apple CEO Tim Cook posted an impassioned defense of encryption, and signaled the legal battles to come.
The iPhone at hand belonged to one of the San Bernadino shooters, the couple who took 14 lives in an attack last December. But the open letter to Apple customers posted on Apple’s website early Wednesday morning is significant in that it doesn’t just respond to this court order and incident, specifically, but to the importance of encryption at large.
“For many years, we have used encryption to protect our customers’ personal data because we believe it’s the only way to keep their information safe,” writes cook in the lengthy response. “We have even put that data out of our own reach, because we believe the contents of your iPhone are none of our business.”
lemented with iOS 8, which ensures has no way to access your files. They’re protected by an encryption key tied to your password. That Apple is just as blind to your photos and texts as the FBI is also helps explain the unique nature of the court request. Rather than impel Apple to unlock the phone, the FBI wants Apple to help it develop a way to “bruteforce” the password—guess until it finds a match—without triggering a mechanism that deletes the key that decrypts the data. Currently, 10 wrong password tries will make the iPhone’s data inaccessible forever. The FBI would like to lift that restriction, along with the mandatory delays between password attempts that will slow their progress considerably.
While this isn’t a “backdoor” in the traditional sense, Cook argues that it amounts to one.
“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,” says Cook. “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 FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. ”