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Partners Stand Behind Tim Cook Letter Saying Apple Won’t Allow FBI Backdoors Into Encrypted iPhones

Apple CEO Tim Cook said Apple refused to create backdoor access to its encrypted iPhones, as ordered in a case stemming from the San Bernardino shootings. Partners cheered the move, saying a backdoor would create a dangerous precedent.

Apple is taking a strong stand on the encryption debate, telling the federal government that it would not submit to requests to unlock an iPhone associated with the San Bernardino shooting late last year.

And Apple's partners are backing the company's position.

In a letter to customers Wednesday, CEO Tim Cook said that, while the San Bernardino event was a tragedy, Apple would not create backdoor access into its encrypted iPhones, saying it would create a dangerous precedent for government access to private information and communications.

’We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand…The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe,’ Cook said.

[Related: Solution Providers: Proposed State-Level Encryption Legislation Would Hamper Our Ability To Protect Mobile Customers]

Partners cheered the move by Cook, saying that the entire encryption debate could be undermined if the company gave in to the FBI’s demands. Michael Oh, chief technology officer and founder of TSP, a Boston-based Apple partner, said it appeared the FBI was using the San Bernardino event as a ’catalyst’ to push its agenda on encryption, but that ’encryption could be undermined’ if the company gave in.

’Apple’s taking the correct stance here,’ he said. ’If Apple gives the FBI the ability to do this, who will make the decision of where to draw the line? This goes far beyond mobile phones and can extend to any device or hard drive.’

The letter comes after a California judge on Tuesday ordered Apple to unlock the iPhone, which was used by one of the alleged assailants in the December mass shooting event. Apple does not have access to the data on its phones, so the FBI requested the company create a new version of its operating system, eliminating some security features, to install on the iPhone in question. Previously, Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple, which has provided default encryption on its iPhones since 2014, could use a tool that would plug into the phone and allow it to respond to search warrant requests from the government.

There is no precedent for the government to ask for this particular kind of access, Cook said, which would force Apple ’to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack’ and create a backdoor with no guaranteed limit on its use.

’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,’ Cook said.

’In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession,’ he said.

Apple’s stand against the FBI is the latest iteration in a growing narrative around encryption technologies. The debate started with the Snowden documents and gained steam in recent months as the government pushed for backdoor access to encryption technologies in wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino late last year.

The security industry has maintained a strong stand, as Cook did in his letter Wednesday, that allowing backdoor access to encryption would weaken security technologies and give hackers easier access to client systems. The government has argued that this type of access is important for law enforcement.

However, this ongoing tug of war between the public and private sector needs to come to some kind of resolution, partners said. Sam Heard, president of Lakeland, Fla.-based Data Integrity Services, said both sides have a valid argument and need to come together in a level-headed way to settle their differences.

’I personally think that both players, the government and private enterprise and corporate America, have to get off their egotistical pogo sticks and sit down in a room and say we can work together,’ Heard said. ’They should all get off their high horses and work together.’

For example, Heard said maybe Apple could, as a compromise, unlock the single phone involved in the San Bernadino case in a clean room on the company’s campus, without showing the FBI how to unlock all iPhones.

Steven Kantorowitz, president of CelPro Associates, an Apple partner based in New York, had a similar view to Heard, given that the government was able to obtain a warrant for the investigation.

’You have an expectation of privacy on your phone... but if the government has a warrant they should be able to be allowed into the phone,’ he said.

Regardless of stance on the debate around encryption, this case will prove a critical turning point in that debate, said John Marler, chief operating officer at Houston-based Set Solutions.

’The Apple case is going to be pivotal,’ Marler said. ’I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes all the way to the Supreme Court.’

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