March 30, 2020
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As the deadline for Apple to respond to a court order to help the FBI unlock an iPhone, both sides are upping the level of their rhetoric, with Apple CEO Tim Cook saying “this is not what should be happening in this country.”
In an interview Wednesday, Cook said that the company has refused to do what the FBI asks–which is to create a custom version of iOS to bypass some security protections on the iPhone–because it views the request as a dangerous precedent, one that could lead to an unknown number and variety of other demands from law enforcement.
“If a court can ask us to write this software, think about what else they could ask us to write. Maybe it’s an operating system for surveillance, maybe the ability for law enforcement to turn on the camera,” Cook told ABC News.
“I don’t know where this stops, but I do know this isn’t what should be happening in this country.”
At issue in the case is the FBI’s desire to access data on an iPhone 5C that was used by Syed Farook, one of the alleged shooters in the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., in December. The phone is protected by a passcode and the FBI got a court order demanding that Apple help the bureau bypass the passcode by installing a custom version of iOS on the phone. Apple has said the request amounts to a back door and has refused to comply with the order thus far.
“I do know this isn’t what should be happening in this country.”
On Thursday, FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee and said that the Apple problem was the most difficult one he’s come across. He said that law enforcement agencies routinely use court orders, warrants, and subpoenas to get information in criminal and terrorism cases, and limiting that ability could have broad effects.
“If we’re going to move to a world where that’s not possible anymore, the world will not end, but it will be a whole lot different,” Comey said.
Apple filed its motion to vacate the court order Thursday afternoon, and said in the document that the assistance the government wants presents not only a huge technical challenge, but would set a dangerous legal precedent if the company complied. In the motion, Apple’s lawyers say that it would take six to 10 company engineers and other employees at least two weeks and maybe twice that long to create the backdoored version of iOS the FBI has asked for.
Meanwhile lawmakers are continuing to watch the case closely. There have been various efforts in Congress in the last year to forward bills that would weaken encryption systems in one way or another, but none has succeeded. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Comey this week asking him to withdraw the FBI’s demands on Apple, and on Thursday said the questions at stake in the case should not be decided in a court.
“This is an issue that should be decided by the American people, the stakeholders, and Congress,” Lieu said in an interview on CNBC.
He added that the arguments the FBI is using about encryption aiding terrorists and the Farook case being a one-off don’t hold water.
“There’s not a shred of evidence that weakening encryption systems would’ve prevented any terrorist attack, ever,” Lieu said. “It’s clear what the FBI is saying isn’t true. This is actually about multiple cases across America and this applies to any case with any iPhone.”
This story was updated on Feb. 25 to add information about Apple’s motion to vacate.
Image from Flickr stream of Mike Deerkoski.