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Tim Cook hits back at 'chilling' order for iPhone 'backdoor'

Apple's CEO won't comply with an order to crack open the iPhone to help with the investigation of the San Bernardino terror attack. The FBI calls it a matter of national security, but Apple says it will derail privacy.

James Martin/CNET

Apple CEO Tim Cook denounced a federal judge's order to crack open an iPhone used by a terrorist, calling the situation "chilling" and saying it would deal a major setback to online privacy for all.

To hack the phone, the FBI wants Apple to build a new version of its iOS software that Cook claims bypasses the iPhone's security features and creates "the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession."

"The US government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create," Cook wrote in an open letter posted on Apple's website. "They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone."

On Tuesday, a judge ordered Apple to assist the FBI in unlocking an iPhone linked to December's terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. Cook warned that such a version of iOS would create, for the first time, a backdoor into all of Apple's encrypted devices and would "undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect."

Cook is willing to challenge the government all the way to the Supreme Court, according to CBS News, citing unnamed sources. Apple may appeal the judge's ruling as early as next Tuesday, although the timing could slide another week, CBS News has learned. (CBS is the parent company of CNET.) Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Now playing: Watch this: Apple vs. the FBI: An easy explanation

Encryption is a huge source of tension between tech companies and law enforcement. Companies including Apple, Google and WhatsApp protect the privacy of their customers by encrypting data, often in a way that even the companies themselves cannot unscramble. Although that lets unscrupulous users such as criminals or terrorists communicate without government surveillance, tech companies justify such security measures by insisting that it's impossible to allow law enforcement to crack encryption without opening the door for criminals to do the same.

The FBI's plan would bypass security functions that limit how many times you can enter an incorrect password. Currently, an iPhone wipes itself if the wrong password is entered 10 times in a row. With that feature disabled, investigators could enter password after password until they hit on the correct one.

The FBI is trying to access an iPhone 5C used by one of the perpetrators of the December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead and 22 injured. Cook says Apple engineers have been working with the FBI since the attack and have "offered our best ideas on a number of investigative options at their disposal."

But now the US wants Apple to create software -- what Cook calls a new version of the iOS mobile software that powers the iPhone -- that would disable the auto-erase feature. While the order specifies the software should be coded to the specific iPhone in question, Cook doesn't see it stopping there.

"Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices," he said. Cook described such software as "the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks."

If Apple is forced to circumvent its own security, this would mark a watershed moment in the ongoing negotiation among government, the private sector and consumers on the subject of security, privacy and surveillance.

"The question is whether companies should be compelled to design their technology for future investigations so that evidence is available, and that's what Apple and other companies have been resisting," Marc Rotenberg, a privacy advocate who leads the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said Wednesday in an interview with NPR.

"The national security concerns are real," Rotenberg said. "The question is, how best to address them...if by addressing the national security concerns, you make US Internet users and iPhone customers more vulnerable to criminal attack or to national security vulnerabilities, you actually haven't solved the problem. You've created a new problem and this is the reason that so many technology experts and privacy experts have said to the government: 'We're not unsympathetic to the concern, but we actually believe that if you weaken communications technology, you leave US Internet users more exposed.'"

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden tweeted that the face-off between Apple and the FBI is the "most important tech case in a decade." He also suggested that Google, maker of the Android software that runs many of the world's phones, should stand up to the government.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai threw his support behind Apple on Wednesday, saying law enforcement demands for a backdoor to customer devices "could compromise users' privacy."

"We know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism," Pichai wrote in a series of tweets. "We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. But that's wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent."

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Thursday tweeted his support for Cook, thanking him for his "leadership."

As for Cook, he described the use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to call for these measures as an "overreach" by the US government even as he said Apple has "no sympathy for terrorists."

The activist known as "Starchild" holds a "Thank you Apple" sign at a rally outside an Apple store in downtown San Francisco.

Terry Collins/CNET

"We are challenging the FBI's demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country," Cook concluded. "While we believe the FBI's intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect."

Meanwhile, more than 30 people from two digital rights nonprofits held a 20-minute rally Wednesday outside an Apple store in downtown San Francisco supporting Cook's position. Many stood holding their smartphones up, some with a sticker on them saying: "I do not consent to the search of this device." They also posted several notes on a store window that read: "Thank you, Tim for protecting our digital rights," and "Thank you for fighting for our freedom and our rights against the U.S. Government!!"

Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said while the San Bernardino shootings may pull on people's sympathies, the right to privacy is critically important.

"We deserve to have a secure online experience," she said. "We certainly are not going to give that up. What the FBI is insisting is counterproductive and it will make us all less safe."

The court order and the possibility of Apple creating a "golden key" for a backdoor is "terrifying," said Charlie Furman, campaign manager for Fight for the Future. He said that the tech giant and the government will not be the only ones seeking to gain access.

"The result here is not so much a question if this golden key will wind up in the wrong hands, but when? And when it does, how much damage will be done?" he said. "That's not a precedent we're willing to risk."

CNET's Terry Collins contributed to this report.

Updated at 12:45 p.m. PT to add quote from Edward Snowden, at 2:48 p.m. PT to add the report from CBS News, at 4:25 p.m. PT to add the Google comment, and at 6:25 p.m. PT to add comments from Apple supporters.

Updated, February 18, at 3:45 p.m. PT: Adds Twitter CEO comment.

Apple iPhone Backdoor Order