Tim Cook Wants a Government Commission to Settle the War Over iPhone Encryption

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Apple charged out of the weekend ready to wage war with the FBI over a court order to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone. In a memo to staff, Tim Cook proposed the formation of a government commission to settle the matter. The feds, for their part, show no clear signs of backing down from the order.

Cook’s memo to staff, obtained by BuzzFeed, lays out Apple’s stance in the encryption debate in very plain terms. The chief executive insisted that the order has much broader implications than pursuing justice in the investigation of the San Bernardino shooter. “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,” says Cook. “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.”

The memo also points to a new FAQ for customers posted to Apple’s website. In it, the company explains how the FBI “is asking Apple to remove security features and add a new ability to the operating system to attack iPhone encryption.” Writing a new operating system would create a tool that could be used to unlock any iPhone—a master key. The customer letter also states that Apple is rejecting the order because it “would set a legal precedent that would expand the powers of the government.”


The feds disagree. In a Sunday night editorial on Lawfare, a national security blog supported by the Brookings Institute, FBI director James Comey claims that the case “isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message.” Comey begs:

We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That’s it. We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land.

So it’s a classic he-said-he-said situation. As Cook states in his staff memo, the idea of creating a government commission with security and encryption experts is one that’s been discussed in Congress. And since Apple and the FBI are saying that the other party is wrong, a more objective panel seems like a decent way to resolve the stalemate.

This fight isn’t ending soon, regardless. The battle over words turned into a war last week. And it looks like it’s going to be a long one.


Read Tim Cook’s full memo below:


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 onapple.com/customer-letter/answers/ 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.


[Apple, BuzzFeed, Lawfare]

Contact the author at adam@gizmodo.com.
Public PGP key
PGP fingerprint: 91CF B387 7B38 148C DDD6 38D2 6CBC 1E46 1DBF 22A8