Apple CEO Tim Cook Goes Thermonuclear On FBI Over iPhone Backdoor Request

Ever since Tim Cook took over the reigns as CEO of Apple in 2011, the mild-mannered man from Alabama seemed quite the polar opposite of the late and great Steve Jobs. Whereas Jobs was often brash and had a knack for using incisive language to skewer opponents, Cook often takes a more measured approach and is by far less abrasive.

But that southern charm has been stripped away following the decision by a U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym that would force Apple to provide backdoor access to an iPhone 5c that was used by the terrorists that killed 14 people during a mass shooting on December 2nd in San Bernardino, California. Up until this point, the mild-mannered Cook has spoken in a firm tone about his company’s unwillingness to provide backdoors (as they could fall into the wrong hands, or be used well beyond the scope of a single court order), but the yesterday’s ruling unleashed a bit of fire inside Cook that we have never seen before.

tim cook 2
Apple CEO Tim Cook

“People use [smartphones] to store an incredible amount of personal information, from our private conversations to our photos, our music, our notes, our calendars and contacts, our financial information and health data, even where we have been and where we are going,” said Cook. “Customers expect Apple and other technology companies to do everything in our power to protect their personal information, and at Apple we are deeply committed to safeguarding their data.”

Cook goes on to explain that Apple has done everything in its power to help the FBI with “requested data that’s in our possession” and that it has “[complied] with valid subpoenas and search warrants” in relation to the San Bernardino case. And make no mistake, Cook goes on to state “We have no sympathy for terrorists.”

But Apple’s CEO then changes gears and moves from relatively diplomatic language to accusing the FBI and the U.S. Government of putting us all at risk. “[They have] 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 [which would circumvent] several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation.

iphone 5c
The FBI wants backdoor access to an iPhone 5c

“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.”

Cook goes on to state that providing backdoor access would essentially give the government the equivalent of a master key that “could be used over and over again, on any number of devices” with reckless abandon. He also shoots down the government’s request for Apple to build a special version of iOS that would make it easier to use use brute force to pummel through the iPhone’s security defenses.

Cook saves his fiercest criticism for last, writing:

Rather than asking for legislative action through Congress, the FBI is proposing an unprecedented use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify an expansion of its authority…

The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.

Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.

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.

While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.

All we can say is, game on! Apple isn’t just going to rollover without a fight, and Tim Cook’s open letter is further proof of his decision to draw a line in the sand. As he points out, the horrific incident in San Bernardino was extremely unfortunate, but should such such a crime — even as heinous as it was — open Pandora’s Box when it comes to encryption? Tech companies have worked for decades to improve security and today’s sophisticated encryption software is critical to keeping customer data safe and out of harm’s reach. But the U.S. Government (and governments aboard) are threatening to unravel all of the progress achieved on this front.

What say you HotHardware readers — is Tim Cook right, or should Apple simply hand its encryption keys over to the FBI and any other agency that asks?