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Apple is challenging a court order to unlock gunman’s iPhone

A US judge ordered it to help the FBI break into an iPhone belonging to one of the attackers of the San Bernardino shooting.

Apple CEO Tim Cook published an open letter, describing the order as
Apple CEO Tim Cook published an open letter, describing the order as "chilling".
Image: Niall Carson/PA Images

APPLE IS CHALLENGING an order to unlock a gunman’s iPhone in the US, claiming it has “implications far beyond the legal case at hand”.

The company made the statement after an American judge ordered Apple on Tuesday to help the FBI break into an iPhone belonging to one of the attackers in the San Bernardino shooting that killed 14 people.

US Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym ordered Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to the FBI, including by disabling an auto-erase feature after too many unsuccessful attempts are made to unlock the iPhone 5C.

However, Apple has rejected this order, describing it as “chilling” and saying it has far-reaching implications.

“The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatened the security of our customers. We oppose this order which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand,” said Cook in an open letter. ”When the FBI has requested data that’s in our possession, we have provided it … We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI and we believe their intentions are good”.

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.
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. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.

Cook also addressed the issue of creating a backdoor solution for its OS would go against the advice of cryptologists and national security experts, and jeopardise the privacy of its users.

“Some would argue that building a backdoor for just one iPhone is a simple, clean-cut solution. But it ignores both the basics of digital security and the significance of what the government is demanding in this case,” he said.

The government would have us remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by “brute force,” trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer.
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.

Apple iPhone Source: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

The case in question

Federal prosecutors had filed a motion requesting Apple’s help after the FBI failed to crack the phone’s code.

By disabling the security features, the FBI will now be able to attempt as many different password combinations as needed before gaining access.

The phone was the property of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, which employed one of the shooters, Syed Farook.

The county agreed to the search of the phone.

Farook, a US citizen, and his Pakistani wife Tashfeen Malik stormed a holiday work party in December and shot up their victims.

Pym, the judge, ordered that Apple provides software that would only run on the device in question or any other technological means to access its data.

“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 Decker said in a statement.

“The application filed today in federal court is another step – a potentially important step – in the process of learning everything we possibly can about the attack in San Bernardino”.

FBI Director James Comey revealed last week that investigators had not been able to crack open the phone two months into the investigation.

“It affects our counterterrorism work,” he said.

Comey stressed the US government’s concerns that commercially-available encryption benefits criminals.

Tech companies, intent on securing the trust of consumers after government spying revelations made by Edward Snowden, have been reluctant to be seen as helping authorities spy on users.

(Additional reporting from AFP)

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