An article in The New York Times provides some additional background details on what led up to Apple’s recent legal battles with the FBI over unlocking the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. The Times profiled Tim Cook and his past efforts involving digital privacy and human rights, and highlighted scenarios where Apple has previously worked with law enforcement agencies in responding to data-extraction requests, contrasting those with the current situation in which the CEO of the Cupertino company is now digging in his heels.
Notably, Apple has cooperated with law enforcement agencies in past years, although the company has often required that officials bring the devices under investigation to the company’s headquarters to be worked on by trusted Apple engineers in RF-shielded Faraday bags. More recently, however, with the development of iOS 8, Apple had taken steps to make it virtually impossible for even Apple engineers to gain access to encrypted iPhone data, essentially putting “keys squarely in the hands of the customer.” Apple continued to comply with court orders to the extent that it could, and in another situation similar to the current FBI request, a federal judge in New York ruled last October that the U.S. Government was overstepping its boundaries in the use of the All Writs Act to compel Apple to open an iPhone for a drug investigation — that particular case also still remains pending. Interestingly, the Times report also notes that Apple did work with the FBI following the San Bernardino attack to gather and provide data from the iPhone in question that had been backed up to iCloud. However, investigators also wanted unspecified information on the iPhone that had not been backed up, resulting in the judge ordering Apple to create a tool specifically to allow investigators to easily crack the iPhone’s passcode to gain access to the device.
The report also reveals that Apple had actually asked the FBI to issue its application for the tool under seal. But the government chose to make the request public, forcing Apple and Tim Cook to take a more public position against the move in response, making the argument that such a decision would set a “dangerous precedent” in forcing companies to build custom tools for the government for the specific purpose of weakening security and privacy.
Cook has reportedly told colleagues that he continues to stand by Apple’s goals to encrypt everything stored on Apple devices and online services — including iCloud, where the bulk of data is still basically unencrypted. “If you place any value on civil liberties, you don’t do what law enforcement is asking,” Cook has said.