Apple chief executive Tim Cook accused the US government of asking his firm to engineer the “software equivalent of cancer” to help investigators unlock a terrorist’s iPhone.
“This is not about one phone,” Cook told ABC multiple times in an interview, which aired 24 February. “This case is about the future. Can the government compel Apple to write software that we believe would make hundreds of millions of customers vulnerable around the world?”
The remarks come as Apple is taking an increasingly firm stance against Washington in a battle over consumer privacy. On 16 February a federal magistrate ordered Apple to write a program that would weaken some of the iPhone’s security countermeasures. Since then the company’s engineers have held discussions with digital security experts on possible ways to make it technically impossible to field such requests in the future, three people familiar with the talks said.
The discussions, first reported by the New York Times, amount to “rumors and speculation,” Apple said.
Regardless, the current moment clearly has pushed Cook, already the most outspoken major technology executive on privacy in recent years, to double down.
And as head of America’s most valuable company, Cook has a few more levers to pull than the average chief executive.
At one point Cook told ABC that he has not yet spoken to Barack Obama about his legal standoff with the justice department. He then said unequivocally that he “will.”
“We need to stand tall, and stand tall on principle,” Cook said. “This should not be happening in America.”
The Apple chief is in a difficult spot. As the US government argues that the iPhone maker is getting in the way of a terrorism investigation, some public opinion polls show a narrow majority of Americans think Apple should comply with the US government’s request.
But Cook argues that the more people learn about the issue, the more they see Apple’s side.
On a technical level, the FBI is locked out of San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook’s iPhone 5s. There is nothing Apple can do directly to change that. Much to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s chagrin, Apple can’t extract data from locked new iPhones anymore.
But it can install a software update that would make it easier for the FBI to guess or crack Farook’s passcode. The government is arguing it should do this under a 227-old law called the All Writs Act, which gives courts broad authority to enforce orders.
Apple counters that if the government can use this law to force it to write such software, it would open the floodgates to constantly writing spy tools for law enforcement. For instance, Cook suggested Apple someday could be forced to write and install a program on a suspect’s phone that would help police turn on the iPhone’s video camera.
“I don’t know where this stops,” he said.
That appears to be why Apple, for now, is exploring ways it could redesign its iPhone software in such a way that it would close off this security loophole in the future, the people familiar with the matter said.
On a conference call with reporters 19 February, a company executive said it was safe to assume that Apple would continue to add more security features to its products to make it harder still for investigators to get access.
This article was written by Danny Yadron in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Thursday 25th February 2016 02.43 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010