What Prompted Tim Cook’s Public Letter in iPhone Encryption Case


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Recently, a US Federal Court ordered Apple to allow the FBI to hack the iPhone 5c used by San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook, by using a custom version of iOS Apple will be forced to produce in a certain timeframe. The custom version of iOS would allow brute force techniques to be applied to unlock the iPhone’s 4-digit passcode, by removing the time delayed protections built to prevent such attacks.

Apple refused to comply, with Tim Cook going ahead with posting a public letter on the company’s website, explaining the US government has asked something of Apple that would threaten the security of its customers.

As to why Cook decided to immediately go public, The New York Time explains it was because the FBI refused Apple’s request to have the application sealed, but rather went ahead to make it public. The public relations war had started: Apple is supporting terrorists by not helping the FBI unlock an ISIS shooter’s iPhone 5c.

Clearly, the FBI had been planning this war versus Apple for a while now:

Apple had asked the F.B.I. to issue its application for the tool under seal. But the government made it public, prompting Mr. Cook to go into bunker mode to draft a response, according to people privy to the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The result was the letter that Mr. Cook signed on Tuesday, where he argued that it set a “dangerous precedent” for a company to be forced to build tools for the government that weaken security.

Cook told his colleagues that he still stands by the company’s longstanding plans to “encrypt everything stored on Apple’s myriad devices, services and in the cloud”, where the bulk of data is still stored unencrypted. “If you place any value on civil liberties, you don’t do what law enforcement is asking,” Cook wrote.

Meanwhile, over at Fortune, Philip Elmer-DeWitt has pointed out how quick some reporters were to pick up an angle that made Apple’s defense of strong cryptography, wrong and hypocritical, referring to Matthew Panzarino from TechCrunch, who reiterated Apple did not unlock 70 iPhones for law enforcement in the past:

“The press has the ability not only to act as a translator but also as an obfuscator. If they get it and they’re able to deliver that information clearly and with proper perspective, the conversation is elevated, the public is informed and sometimes it even alters the course of policy-making for the better.”

In the latest news involving the Apple vs FBI battle, CNBC now reports the Department of Justice has just filed a motion to force Apple to comply with the FBI order.

Privacy advocates believe if Apple is forced to comply with the court order, it would set a dangerous precedent, and would mean other governments could also force the iPhone maker to unlock devices and bypass security protocols, for all iOS devices.

Moreover, any custom versions of iOS meant to bypass encryption would no doubt fall into criminal hands, or other governments, given how anything can be hacked nowadays.

This case isn’t close just yet folks–it’s only beginning. Time to grab some popcorn, and lots of it.


  • BigCat

    “The New York Time explains it was because the FBI refused Apple’s request to have the application sealed, but rather went ahead to make it public.”

    Last Sunday the Director of the CIA John Brennan was interviewed. During his interview he managed to work in the point of how they cannot access smart phones. Every chance the government gets they are highlighting this point.

    So, is this pubic relations war or are they trying to create a belief in smart phone security? If the bad guys stop using smart phones that could be a real intelligence setback.

  • From what we’ve learned from the Snowden leaks, governments are keen on accessing private citizen date by any means. I have no doubt if such a tool was created, it would “leak” somehow.

    Heck, maybe the FBI already has hacked into the iPhone 5c without us knowing, but this opportunity to force Apple’s hand (and other tech companies) is too irresistible.

  • Jason

    Since when did hacking become legal? Just because your the government shouldn’t mean laws no longer apply to you.

  • BigCat

    Yes, this is certainly possible, but I am sure there are many things that have not been leaked.

    The most damaging aspect of the Snowden leaks was not what they were doing, but that their capabilities were revealed. This is what really setback their intelligence efforts. If you know your phone is tapped, your probably not going to use it anymore. The changes Google made is a small example of the effect Snowden had.

    Gary, get your tinfoil ready.

  • Free Alcan aluminum foil for all!

  • Andy

    Since when did hacking become legal? “Just because you’re the government, it doesn’t mean the laws no longer apply to you.”

  • The developer community is very smart. I totally agree, if a tool is made, it will be leaked.
    Look how long Apple has been trying to prevent jailbreaking, their efforts only seem to last a couple weeks at best.

    This tool they wish to be created should never exist, and I hope it doesn’t. I understand they only want it for investigations and such, but that lie can only be sustained until their caught red handed going through every phone they get their hands on.