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Yesterday, Apple CEO Tim Cook published a post called “A Message to our Customers.” The post warns of an FBI request, which if obeyed by Apple, would undermine the encryption on Apple phones.

Before divulging the full details of the FBI’s request, the post explains the importance of encryption to protect the privacy of personal data. It addition to privacy, there are even some cases where encryption is required to protect a person’s safety. This is an important point to make, because safety is the exact reason being used as an excuse to undermine encryption.

The request relates to the San Bernardino shooting. In the aftermath of the attack, the FBI requested data held by Apple to assist in their investigation, and Apple provided everything they could in compliance with a lawful subpoena. Apple has also made engineers available to advise the FBI. However, Apple says they cannot comply with the latest request.

In order to circumvent the encryption on the phone belonging to one of the shooters, the FBI is requesting that Apple build a custom version of iOS with a backdoor, and install it on the phone. Cook argues that this would undermine the security of all iPhones. Although the government claims it will be used a single time on this specific phone, once the software exists and is in government hands they can potentially install it on any phone.

Although the wording of the post up to this point might make it sound like this is merely a request by the FBI, which can safely be turned down, there is in fact a court order from a California judge, which requires Apple to assist the FBI in this matter. It specifically asks Apple to create a software image that can be loaded on the phone to circumvent encryption. The order does specify that Apple should design the software with a unique identifier of the shooter’s phone, so it can only be run on that device. Based on Cook’s warning about the dangers of complying with this order, we can assume that he believes this measure would be insufficient to prevent the government from using the program on any phone.

This order is justified by the All Writs Act, which essentially gives courts the power to issue any orders that are “necessary or appropriate” to assist in the execution of already issued orders. In this case the order to force Apple to circumvent the phone’s encryption is to assist in the execution of a search warrant on the phone itself. Cook’s post also warns of the dangerous precedent this order sets. He states:

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.

Apple has stated they intend to fight the FBI’s request. Already, privacy advocates have spoken up in support of Apple. The Electronic Frontier Foundation made a post on the matter, and states their intention to file an amicus brief with the court in support of Apple’s position. Edward Snowden has also shown his support for Apple on his Twitter account.

Max Michael

Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.