5 things to take from Apple’s letter of defiance against the US government

Apple has published a letter of defiance against the US government, specifically against an order that the company assist the FBI in its attempts to unlock the iPhone of gunman Syed Rizwan Farook.

5 things to take from Apple’s letter of defiance against the US government

Tim Cook’s letter, titled “A Message to Our Customers”, is a significant move by the company against the wishes of the United States government. In it, Cook lays out his position of opposition against the order and calls for a public discussion of its implications.

You can read the letter in full on Apple’s website, but here are five main points to consider.

1. Encryption is a part of everyday life

Cook starts his argument by setting encryption in context. He claims that smartphones have become “an essential part of our lives” and that everything from financial information to health data is stored on them.

“Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk,” he says. “That is why encryption has become so important to all of us.”

2. Apple has complied with the FBI, but it refuses to make backdoors to its software

Cook claims that Apple has complied with valid subpoenas and search warrants when the FBI has issued them, and have made Apple engineers available to assist with investigations when necessary.

Crucially, Cook says that Apple has “done everything that is both within our power and within the law” to help the FBI, but what the court order is asking lies beyond this remit.

“The US government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create,” Cook writes. “They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

3. Building backdoors is a larger issue than one specific case

Cook’s argument hinges on the issue that building a backdoor to one iPhone is not as clear-cut as it may seem – that doing so would undermine the entirety of Apple’s security.

“In today’s digital world, the ‘key’ to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it,” Cook writes. “Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.”

Cook goes so far as to say that the government suggestion that a backdoor to encryption will only be used once, on one particular phone, is “simply not true”.

“Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices,” he writes. “In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks – from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

4. The government is essentially asking Apple to hack its own users

By providing a “master key”, Apple would be undermining its security and, consequently, the personal data of its customers. Cook says the government is effectively asking Apple to “hack” its own users, and that the company would be leaving Apple customers open to attacks from cybercriminals.  

“We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack,” he writes. “For years, cryptologists and national security experts have been warning against weakening encryption. Doing so would hurt only the well-meaning and law-abiding citizens who rely on companies like Apple to protect their data. Criminals and bad actors will still encrypt, using tools that are readily available to them.”

5. The implications are that Apple could be asked to build mass surveillance software

Cook has called the implications of the government order “chilling”, and takes issue with the FBI proposing an “unprecedented use” of the All Writs Act of 1789 – an Act that gives federal courts the authority to issue writs (court orders) that are “necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law”.

Instead, Cook argues, the FBI should be asking for legislative action through Congress. The repercussions of using the All Writs Act in this way could be that the government orders Apple to intercept messages or track the location of its users.

“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,” he writes. “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.”

Read next: Apple calls order to unlock San Bernardino gunman’s phone “a dangerous precedent”

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