Apple’s Tim Cook vs. the FBI, round two: “This case is about much more than a single phone”

Resisting opening a door into the dark.
Resisting opening a door into the dark.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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In a letter to Apple employees, Tim Cook has reiterated the reasons for the company’s resistance to requests from US law enforcement to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the suspects in the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

The FBI has asked Apple to create a new version of the iPhone’s operating system, which would allow it to crack the phone’s passcode—a security feature that means data can’t be accessed without manual entry of the correct code in under ten attempts.

In an email to staff, the company’s CEO said that the issue isn’t one particular iPhone:

This case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation, so when we received the government’s order we knew we had to speak out. At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties.

In notes about the case on its site, Apple pointed out that in the online world, once a security workaround has been created, the genie can’t be put back in the bottle:

The digital world is very different from the physical world. In the physical world you can destroy something and it’s gone. But in the digital world, the technique, once created, could be used over and over again, on any number of devices.

Cook’s note thanks the Apple team for its work keeping security tight, and for supporting the company’s position. But his emphasis on the potential ramifications of a security breach also read as a direct answer to the FBI’s claims that the request is specific to this single case.

The FBI’s director, James Comey, argued in a blog post: “The particular legal issue is actually quite narrow. The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve.”

One of the reasons that the FBI can’t get any of the data that it wants from the phone is that it changed the password—meaning that an iCloud backup could no longer be performed.