On January 2016, some of President Obama’s top intelligence advisors met in Silicon Valley with Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL)’s CEO, Tim Cook, and other technology sector leaders in what seemed to be a public concord in their long term debate about the encryption safeguards built into their products.
However, their relation is tense recently as lawyers for the Obama administration and Apple held closely guarded discussions for over two months about one particularly pressing case: On December, the F.B.I. wanted Apple to help unlock an iPhone which used by one of the two attackers who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. But Apple announced that it will fight the order from judge who requiring them to unlock the attackers’ iPhone.
Both sides of this case are bracing for the legal fight finally to reach the Supreme Court, and the possibility that the case could point Congress to act. The order from Judge Sheri Pym gives Apple five days to challenge her order, which the company has already pledged to do. Whichever side loses is likely to appeal.
Tim Cook responded Wednesday morning with a 1,100-word letter to Apple customers, warning of the “chilling” breach of privacy posed by the government’s demands. He mentioned that the order would effectively require it to create a “backdoor” to get around its own safeguards, and Apple promised to appeal the ruling by next week.
“The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe,” Tim Cook said.
Apple argues that the software the F.B.I. wants it to create does not exist. But experts believe the company can do it. Tim Cook’s angry tone reflected the tense discussions, conducted mostly on the telephone, between his company and the government’s lawyers over the San Bernardino case.
“It’s not really a question of security versus privacy. It’s security versus security,’’ said Bruce Schneier, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “Saying that all of these devices must be insecure so the FBI can have access would be a security disaster for us as a society.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman on Wednesday said it was “unfortunate that Apple continues to refuse to assist the department in obtaining access to the phone of one of the terrorists involved in a major terror attack on U.S. soil.” She added, “The judge’s order and our request in this case do not require Apple to redesign its products, to disable encryption or to open content on the phone. In addition, the judge’s order and our request were narrowly tailored to this particular phone.’’
The government’s action presents Apple with a daunting public relations dilemma. In defying the FBI, the company risks alienating consumers concerned about terrorism and being blamed for a future attack. On the other hand, because many customers and Internet activists care deeply about privacy, Apple risks a backlash if it complies.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attacked Apple during an interview on Fox News, saying, “Who do they think they are? … Certainly, we should be able to get into the phone, and we should find out what happened, why it happened, and maybe there’s other people involved.”