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Apple CEO defies US court order to break into iPhone

Apple chief Tim Cook has rejected a judge's order to help the FBI break into an iPhone used by an attacker in the San Bernardino shooting, warning it was "too dangerous" to create such a backdoor to the smartphone.

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Apple ordered to unlock San Bernardino shooter's iPhone

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook announced on the company's website Wednesday that the US technology giant would refuse to obey an order issued by US magistrate Judge Sheri Pym demanding the company to break into the iPhone of Syed Farook.

On December 14, Farook, a US citizen, and his Pakistani wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people at an office party in San Bernardino, California, before they were killed in a shootout with police.

Judge Pym ordered Apple on Tuesday to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to the FBI, including disabling an auto-erase feature after FBI investigators had admitted last week that they had not been able to crack open the iPhone 5C two months into the investigation.

But the Apple CEO said the company would fight the judge's order because the US government had demanded an "unprecedented step" which threatened the security of Apple customers. "We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand," Cook wrote.

Citing major privacy concerns, Cook also said it was too risky to provide the requested software because it could allow ill-intentioned individuals to unlock any iPhone. "They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone. In the wrong hands, this software - which does not exist today - would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession," he added.

Backdoor to mass surveillance

The assistance ordered by the US court includes disabling the phone's auto-erase function, which activates after ten consecutive unsuccessful passcode attempts and assisting investigators to submit passcode guesses electronically.

By disabling the security features, the FBI would be able to attempt as many different password combinations as needed before gaining access to the phone. But Apple claimed it was impossible to create such a tool that could only be used once, on one phone.

"Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices," Apple said. "In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks - from restaurants and banks to stores and homes."

The US government is concerned that commercially-available encryption benefits criminals. Tech companies, intent on securing the trust of consumers after government spying revelations made by Edward Snowden, have been reluctant to be seen as helping the authorities spy on users.

"We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack," Apple said."The implications of the government's demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone's device to capture their data."

Cook also warned that if Apple complied with the order, the government could demand surveillance software to intercept, access health and financial data, track users' location or access a phone's microphone or camera without the user's knowledge.

uhe/ng (Reuters, AFP)

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