Following a terrorist attack in the United Stated last December, Apple has been ordered to help unlock an iPhone used by one of the terrorists.  In a letter to Apple’s customers, CEO Tim Cook has declared that the company will “oppose this order”.

The attack, which took place in San Bernardino, California in December last year, was carried out by two assailants who claimed the lives of 14 people and seriously injured a further 22. One of the terrorists owned an iPhone which has since been in the custody of the FBI.

In the time between then and yesterday, attempts to access the phone have been unsuccessful. Authorities hope that the phone will yield pertinent information such as communications and images. To try and get access to them, a magistrate judge has asked Apple not to get around the phone’s encryption, but rather to disable or bypass the feature wherein ten incorrect password tries would wipe the phone’s data.

Tim Cook has now come forward to state the company’s position on the order. After explaining the need for encryption on smartphones, and the iPhone, he speaks about the San Bernardino case and how “we have no sympathy for terrorists.” He goes on to state how Apple has been trying its best to assist the FBI while remaining within the law and their engineer’s capabilities.

But Cook maintains that what has been asked of the company is simply impossible (at the moment) and, if it was, would endanger the safety of all their iPhones:

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.

Cook calls this a “master key” which would be unacceptable and potentially dangerous. For these reasons, Apple will oppose the order.

While not entirely a surprise (Apple has refused similar orders in the past), it looks like the issue will need to be settled in court as Apple v. United States could become a landmark fight to determine what rights users have when it comes to the protection of their private data.

[Source – The Washington Post / Apple, Image – C.C 2.0 by Mike Deerkoski]