Family of murdered soldier criticizes Apple's refusal to hack San Bernadino shooter's iPhone

The uncle of British soldier Lee Rigby, who was killed by Islamic extremists in 2013, has called Tim Cook's insistence on prioritizing privacy "short-sighted."

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
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Lee Rigby was murdered in a terrorist attack as he was walking near his barracks in Woolwich, England, in May 2013.

Velar Grant/Demotix/Corbis

The family of a British soldier murdered by Islamic extremists has criticized Apple's refusal to abide by a court order to hack into an iPhone linked to December's terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook spoke out against the court order on Wednesday, calling the demand "chilling" and saying that compliance would be a major setback for online privacy. He was backed by a number of digital rights groups and tech leaders, but not everyone agrees with his stance.

Apple is "protecting a murderer's privacy at the cost of public safety," Ray McClure, the uncle of Fusilier Lee Rigby, told the BBC on Thursday. Rigby was off duty and walking down the street near his barracks in Woolwich, England, in May 2013 when he was the victim of a brutal attack by two men who told witnesses they were avenging the killing of Muslims by British soldiers.

At the heart of the debate is the ongoing tussle over encryption between tech giants on the one hand and law enforcement and intelligence agencies on the other. Facebook, Apple and Google all want to protect the privacy of their customers by ensuring their security is watertight, but the US and UK governments are putting pressure on them to create new ways to hack devices, arguing that privacy should not come at the expense of national security.

In the court order handed to Apple, the company was told it must assist the FBI in unlocking an iPhone linked to San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. The FBI wants Apple build a new version of its iOS mobile software that would be able to bypass the iPhone's security so that the agency could hack any device remotely.

The company has been working with the FBI since the attack, handing over data in its possession when it was available and offering a number of "our best ideas," Cook said in an open letter published on Apple's website. The software the FBI wanted does not currently exist and Apple had no plans to create it, he said. "The US government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create."

McClure got in touch with the BBC after reading Cook's letter, saying he thought the company was being short-sighted. "Valuable evidence is on that smartphone and Apple is denying the FBI access to that information," McClure said, arguing that a warrant to search a smartphone should be no different than a warrant used to search a property.

"I would hate to see on the streets of London another murder like happened to Lee Rigby, I'd hate to see another attack like happened in Paris," said McClure. "How many victims of crime are not getting justice because of Apple's stance?"

Privacy advocates and tech industry leaders are standing by Cook. Jan Koum, founder of Facebook-owned messenger WhatsApp, said that he admired Cook, while Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai tweeted that ordering companies to hack into customer devices "could be a troubling precedent."

McClure said that he understood the value of encryption, but not at the expense of helping the authorities. "I'm not saying take encryption off the iPhone, but there has to be a balance."

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.