Apple vs FBI: What you need to know

A federal judge has ordered Apple to help the FBI break into the iPhone of Syed Farook, one of the shooters involved in the Dec. 2 attack that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. Apple CEO Tim Cook posted a letter on the company’s website Tuesday, vowing to fight the judge’s order.

Apple CEO: ‘They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone’

“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.

“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 FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”

Read Apple CEO Tim Cook’s letter to customers at

The judge’s ruling

The ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym requires Apple to build software the FBI can load onto Farook's iPhone to bypass or disable a self-destruct feature that erases the iPhone's data after too many unsuccessful passcodes. The order specifically calls for three things:

“Apple's reasonable technical assistance shall accomplish the following three important functions: (1) it will bypass or disable the auto-erase function whether or not it has been enabled; (2) it will enable the FBI to submit passcodes to the SUBJECT DEVICE for testing electronically via the physical device port, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or other protocol available on the SUBJECT and (3) it will ensure that when the FBI submits passcodes to the SUBJECT DEVICE, software running on the device will not purposefully introduce any additional delay between passcode attempts beyond what is incurred by Apple hardware.”

Order only applies to Farook's iPhone

The judge’s order isn’t asking Apple to build a back door to all iPhones. The order is asking for bypass software programmed to work only on Farook's phone, which was configured to erase data after 10 consecutive unsuccessful passcodes.

Still, Apple says this order sets a “dangerous precedent.”

“The implications of the government’s demands are chilling,” Cook wrote.” 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. 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.”

All Writs Act

The All Writs Act is a 1789 law that allows courts to order a person or company to do something. The All Writs Act, which was enacted during the very first session of Congress, has been a go-to statute for federal courts in cases involving modern smartphone technology. Qualifications for applying the All Writs Act include:

No law exists to deal with the specific issue in question.

The business or person involved has a connection to the investigation.

There are extraordinary circumstances that justify the use of the Act.

Compliance with the order must not be an unreasonable burden.