PDF The US Department of Justice has today filed a motion compelling Apple to comply with a court order to help the FBI break into a killer's iPhone.
On Tuesday, a magistrate judge in central California granted an order filed by the Feds that requires Apple to reprogram San Bernardino murderer Syed Farook's smartphone with a custom build of iOS. This tailored firmware must allow agents to quickly guess Farook's passcode, and thus unlock his device, without triggering an iOS feature that wipes the iPhone after 10 wrong PIN attempts.
In December, Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik were killed by cops after the couple shot dead 14 coworkers. It's believed the pair have possible links to terrorists abroad.
However, when the agency submitted its demands in a public court citing the powerful All Writs Act, Apple CEO Tim Cook hit the roof: he lashed out at the "chilling" request in an open letter, and claimed the case will set a dangerous legal precedent and introduce a backdoor to iOS security. The Cupertino giant, which isn't in a hurry to admit that it can actually reprogram a locked iOS device, intends to resist the Cali court order.
That hasn't gone down well with the US government.
"Rather than assist the effort to fully investigate a deadly terrorist attack by obeying this court's order, Apple has responded by publicly repudiating that order," DoJ prosecutors wrote in their motion [PDF] submitted today.
"The order does not, as Apple's public statement alleges, require Apple to create or provide a 'back door' to every iPhone; it does not require Apple to 'hack [its] own users' or to 'decrypt' its phone; it does not give the government 'to reach into anyone else's device' without a warrant or court authorization; and it does not compromise the security of personal information.
"Apple's current refusal to comply with the court's order, despite the technical feasibility of doing so, instead appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy."
You have to give some credit to Cook, though: there will be serious ramifications if Apple is forced to create a custom build of its software that disables its own security mechanisms. What will the company be asked to create next? And for whom – China, Russia? And how exactly do you, under the US Constitution, force programmers to write software – has someone been watching Swordfish again? We shudder to think.
The motion compelling Apple to comply with the earlier order will be considered by magistrate Sheri Pym at 1pm on March 22. ®
PS: Farook destroyed two of his other phones, but not his iPhone 5C that the FBI wants to break into. That 5C is a work phone, belonging to the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, and may not contain anything incriminating. The Feds also have access to his device backups to mid-October. For some reason, Farook's iCloud password was reset by US officials in the hours after he murdered his coworkers, which prevented any further over-the-air backups from the device.
There are many twists and turns to this story, but here's the question: given Apple's pro-privacy stance, is this really a fight to nail a terror ring, or a power struggle between a government and the biggest biz on the planet by market cap?