Apple is refusing FBI demands to hack the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters

“Consider the implications,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook.
“Consider the implications,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Image: AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
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Updated at 4am EST.

A US federal judge has ordered Apple to help the FBI hack into an iPhone used by one of the assailants in the San Bernardino, California shootings—and Apple is refusing to do so.

A Feb. 16 ruling from US magistrate Sheri Pym demands the Cupertino, California company provide the Federal Bureau of Investigation with software to bypass an iPhone security feature that wipes the device’s data after too many failed unlocking attempts. Apple had previously “declined to provide that assistance voluntarily,” according to a filing from the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.

Later on Feb. 16, Apple CEO Tim Cook responded in a letter explaining that Apple was challenging the ruling, which it considers “an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers,” and an “overreach” by the US government.

The letter elaborates:

The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.

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. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

On Dec. 2, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, killing 14 people and injuring 20 others. After the shooting, authorities recovered Farook’s work phone, an iPhone 5c, along with several other cell phones.

Prosecutors believe data on the iPhone could help them discover who the assailants were communicating with, where they had traveled before the attack, and any assistance they received in carrying out the shootings.

“We have made a solemn commitment to the victims and their families that we will leave no stone unturned as we gather as much information and evidence as possible,” US Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement. “These victims and families deserve nothing less.”

Cook countered that Apple is standing up to what it sees as an “overreach” by the US government. He said:

We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.