LOS ANGELES (CN) - Apple CEO Tim Cook says he will fight a federal judge's order to help the FBI unlock San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook's iPhone 5, calling a request to build a backdoor into its operating system "too dangerous to create."
In a statement late Tuesday, Cook said the demand would create an "unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers" and has "implications far beyond the legal case at hand."
Cook said that Apple has "no sympathy for terrorists" and supports the FBI's efforts to unlock the phone. The company complied with valid subpoenas and search warrants and provided technical support, the executive said.
But he said the government's demand that the company build a new backdoor version of its operating system would set a "dangerous precedent."
"We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone," Cook wrote.
"Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software - which does not exist today - would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession," the Feb. 16 message states.
On Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym ordered Apple to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to FBI technicians working on Farook's iPhone 5.
Officials found the phone in a black SUV belonging to Farook and Tashfeen Malik after the couple was killed in a shootout with police on the streets of San Bernardino on Dec. 2, 2015.
U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said investigators have "worked tirelessly to exhaust every investigative lead in the case" as the FBI attempts to unravel motives for the massacre that left 14 people dead and 22 wounded.
"The application filed today in Federal Court is another step - a potentially important step - in the process of learning everything we possibly can about the attack in San Bernardino," Decker said in a statement.
In supporting documents, the government says it has been unable to access the password-protected content of the iPhone. Investigators hope the encrypted content might reveal who the couple communicated with and where they traveled, before and after the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil since the 9/11 attacks.
The phone is property of San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, where Farook worked as an environmental health specialist trainee.
Ten failed attempts to unlock device would auto-erase all of the content and Apple has the means to help unlock the phone so investigators can complete the search. But Apple "has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily," the government says.
Pym's 3-page order compels Apple to help bypass the auto-erase function so FBI technicians can crack the passcode, and disable any functions that would delay the process of testing passwords on the device.
The government says Apple can modify software on the phone to make sure the auto-erase function is turned off. Pym says in her order that if the government agrees, Apple can build alternative technology to give investigators access to the phone.
But Cook said that while he believes the FBI has good intentions, building a new version of its iOS operating system would leave customers vulnerable to attacks from hackers and criminals.
"The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that's simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices," Cook wrote. "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. No reasonable person would find that acceptable."
To get around lawmakers in Washington, Cook said the FBI is citing a centuries-old law called the All Writs Act of 1789 to order Apple to build the new operating system.
The company felt it had to "speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government," Cook 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 wrote. "The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone's microphone or camera without your knowledge."
Digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation said Tuesday that it would file court papers supporting the tech company.
"Essentially, the government is asking Apple to create a master key so that it can open a single phone. And once that master key is created, we're certain that our government will ask for it again and again, for other phones, and turn this power against any software or device that has the audacity to offer strong security," EFF executive Kurt Opsahl wrote in a post on the group's website.
After whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations on mass surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency, Apple responded in September 2014 with a new version of its operating system, iOS 8, which encrypted and safeguarded consumers' data.
But after the San Bernardino attacks, President Barack Obama placed pressure on tech companies to support U.S. efforts to destroy the Islamic State, or ISIL. On Dec. 6, Obama said in an address to the nation that he would "urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice."
Apple has five business days to file papers challenging the court order.
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