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Tim Cook says Apple's dispute with FBI is best handled this way

In an email to Apple employees, the CEO thanks his supporters and offers the government an alternative to the demand for iPhone access that "threatens everyone's civil liberties."

A note supporting Apple hangs on window of a San Francisco Apple Store.

James Martin/CNET

Apple is not backing down.

CEO Tim Cook on Monday urged the US government to drop its demands for his company to create a backdoor into an iPhone tied to a terrorist attack. Apple contends that such a breach of security could not be contained and would expose countless iPhone users to unreasonable risks.

Instead, Cook said in an email to employees Monday, he wants Congress to form a commission to "discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy and personal freedoms."

Cook has been in the spotlight over the past week for standing up to government investigators. In his email, he thanked employees for their support and detailed his stance. Apple also published a Q&A on its website to address customers' questions about the issue.

"Apple is a uniquely American company," Cook said in the email. "It does not feel right to be on the opposite side of the government in a case centering on the freedoms and liberties that government is meant to protect."

Leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Monday invited Cook and FBI Director James Comey to appear before the committee "to discuss the issues surrounding encryption -- specifically when privacy and national security issues are raised." Apple didn't immediately say whether Cook plans to attend.

For more than a decade, the tension between privacy and national security has run high over how technology can be used to investigate and anticipate threats. The current standoff between Apple and the FBI also turns up the heat on the simmering battle over encryption -- the technology that scrambles information to prevent unauthorized readers from seeing it -- between Washington and Silicon Valley.

Last week, a federal judge ordered Apple to assist the FBI in unlocking an iPhone 5C used by Syed Farook, one of two terrorists who killed 14 people at a party in San Bernardino, California, in December. The government wants Apple to create a new variant of its iOS software to grant investigators access to data on the device, but Cook warned that such a version of iOS would create, for the first time, a backdoor into all of Apple's encrypted devices.

The government is using the All Writs Act, which was signed into law by President George Washington in 1789, to try to force Apple to change its software. The act helped establish the judiciary system in the US, giving federal courts the power to issue orders, which were known as "writs" at the time.

The company has until Friday to respond to the court order, and a hearing is set for March 22 in US District Court for the Central District of California in Riverside. Apple has said it will fight the government's request all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, because it means creating a "master key" for all phones that would make them less secure.

The FBI disputes that view.

"The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve," Comey said in a statement late Sunday. "We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land."


Over the weekend, Apple and the FBI traded barbs over the series of events that led to the court battle. The issue could have been avoided, Apple said, if the FBI had connected Farook's iPhone 5C to a familiar Wi-Fi network and had it create a new backup on Apple's iCloud service. But the County of San Bernardino, at the behest of the FBI, had reset Farook's iCloud password.

"Even if the password had not been changed and Apple could have turned on the auto-backup and loaded it to the cloud," the FBI said Sunday, "there might be information on the phone that would not be accessible without Apple's assistance as required by the All Writs Act order, since the iCloud backup does not contain everything on an iPhone."

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Cook on Monday called the government's request a "dangerous precedent that threatens everyone's civil liberties" and said that complying with the court order would "roll back data protections to iOS 7," which hit the market in September 2013. With iOS 8, released the following year, Apple started encrypting everything on iPhones, making personal data more secure but also preventing the company from circumventing passcodes to pull data from phones to comply with search warrants, as it had done in the past.

"We all know that turning back the clock on that progress would be a terrible idea," Cook said Monday.

He added that if Apple created a new version of iOS for the government, it couldn't be completely destroyed after use in the San Bernardino and instead could be used over and over again.

"Law enforcement agents around the country have already said they have hundreds of iPhones they want Apple to unlock if the FBI wins this case," Cook said.

Americans have been divided over whether Apple should do as the FBI has asked. Donald Trump, the billionaire and frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president, called for a boycott of Apple's products until it complies with the court order. The family of a UK terrorist attack victim also has criticized Apple.

But in his email Monday, Cook said he has received supportive "messages from thousands of people in all 50 states." One email from a 13-year-old app developer "thanked us for standing up for 'all future generations,'" Cook said. "And a 30-year Army veteran told me, 'Like my freedom, I will always consider my privacy as a treasure.'"

Full text of the email to Apple employees from Cook:

Subject: Thank you for your support


Last week we asked our customers and people across the United States to join a public dialogue about important issues facing our country. In the week since that letter, I've been grateful for the thought and discussion we've heard and read, as well as the outpouring of support we've received from across America.

As individuals and as a company, we have no tolerance or sympathy for terrorists. When they commit unspeakable acts like the tragic attacks in San Bernardino, we work to help the authorities pursue justice for the victims. And that's exactly what we did.

This case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation, so when we received the government's order we knew we had to speak out. At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone's civil liberties.

As you know, we use encryption to protect our customers -- whose data is under siege. We work hard to improve security with every software release because the threats are becoming more frequent and more sophisticated all the time.

Some advocates of the government's order want us to roll back data protections to iOS 7, which we released in September 2013. Starting with iOS 8, we began encrypting data in a way that not even the iPhone itself can read without the user's passcode, so if it is lost or stolen, our personal data, conversations, financial and health information are far more secure. We all know that turning back the clock on that progress would be a terrible idea.

Our fellow citizens know it, too. Over the past week I've received messages from thousands of people in all 50 states, and the overwhelming majority are writing to voice their strong support. One email was from a 13-year-old app developer who thanked us for standing up for "all future generations." And a 30-year Army veteran told me, "Like my freedom, I will always consider my privacy as a treasure."

I've also heard from many of you and I am especially grateful for your support.

Many people still have questions about the case and we want to make sure they understand the facts. So today we are posting answers on to provide more information on this issue. I encourage you to read them.

Apple is a uniquely American company. It does not feel right to be on the opposite side of the government in a case centering on the freedoms and liberties that government is meant to protect.

Our country has always been strongest when we come together. We feel the best way forward would be for the government to withdraw its demands under the All Writs Act and, as some in Congress have proposed, form a commission or other panel of experts on intelligence, technology and civil liberties to discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy and personal freedoms. Apple would gladly participate in such an effort.

People trust Apple to keep their data safe, and that data is an increasingly important part of everyone's lives. You do an incredible job protecting them with the features we design into our products. Thank you.