Apple CEO Tim Cook has asked the U.S. government to withdraw its court action demanding tools that will allow the FBI to hack the passcode of an iPhone, and instead set up a commission of tech, intelligence and civil liberties experts to discuss "the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy and personal freedoms."
"We have done everything that’s both within our power and within the law to help in this case. As we’ve said, we have no sympathy for terrorists," Cook said in an email Monday to Apple employees. Apple said it would gladly participate in the commission.
The FBI has sought help from Apple for a workaround to the auto-erase function in an iPhone 5c, running iOS 9, which was used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the terrorists involved in the San Bernardino, California, attack on Dec. 2. The FBI is concerned that without this workaround from Apple it could accidentally erase data, while trying to break the passcode by "brute force" techniques.
Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ordered Apple last week to provide assistance, including by providing signed software if required, to help the FBI try different passcodes on the locked iPhone 5c, without triggering the auto-erase feature in the phone.
Cook said in the email to employees it was certainly possible to create an entirely new operating system to undermine security features as the government wants. "But it’s something we believe is too dangerous to do," he added in an accompanying FAQ to the employees.
Law enforcement agents around the country have already said they have hundreds of iPhones they want Apple to unlock if the FBI wins this case, said Cook, who pointed out to the risk of cybercriminals also getting access to the master key.
Apple has done "everything that’s both within our power and within the law to help in this case," Cook said. One of the strongest suggestions the company offered was that the investigators pair the phone to a previously joined network which would allow them to back-up the phone and get the data they are now asking for, Cook said. But the company learned that the Apple ID password associated with the phone was changed while in FBI custody, which meant the phone could no longer access iCloud services, he added.
The FBI has already responded to this charge by Apple, which was first raised over the weekend. It said that the phone had last been backed up to iCloud on Oct. 19 and it wasn't known whether an additional iCloud backup of the phone after that date, if technically possible, would have yielded any data. Direct data extraction from an iOS device often provides more data than an iCloud backup contains, according to a statement circulated over the weekend by the FBI to some media outlets.
In an unusual turn to a lawsuit, the FBI and Apple have taken their debate to public forums, apparently in a bid to win over the public to their side. FBI Director James Comey on Sunday wrote in a blog post that a conflict between privacy and safety should not be resolved by companies or by the FBI, but by the American people. He said that the FBI was not aiming to break into anyone's encryption or set loose a master key to devices like the iPhone.