Apple said Wednesday that a court order requiring it to help the FBI break into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino mass shooters represents an “unprecedented” threat to the security of its customers.
Syed Farook’s iPhone is protected by a feature that automatically wipes it clean of all its data after 10 incorrect password attempts have been entered. FBI Director James B. Comey told Congress last week that agents had not been able to access the data.
A federal judge on Tuesday issued an order requiring Apple to “bypass or disable” the auto-erase function so the FBI can try to guess the password without risking the deletion of the data. Under a 1789 law, the judge said, Apple should provide the FBI with “reasonable technical assistance.”
In a letter Wednesday to its customers, the company said the FBI has demanded that Apple “take an unprecedented step” by building 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 [Farook’s] iPhone,” CEO Tim Cook wrote. “In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”
Cook rejected the government’s claim that the new operating system would only be used to bypass the data protection on Farook’s phone.
“Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices,” he warned. “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.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym gave Apple five days in which to request relief from her order. The All Writs Act of 1789 allows federal courts to issue orders that require third parties to assist in the execution of another court order, like a search warrant.
“The key question here is how far can the government go in forcing a third party to aid in surveillance?” Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the New York Times.