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Apple Chief Calls Court Order to Unlock iPhone ‘Unprecedented Step’

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Timothy D. Cook, the chief executive of Apple, released a letter to customers several hours after a California judge ordered the company to unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in a recent attack that killed 14 people in San Bernardino. Credit Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Timothy D. Cook, the chief executive of Apple, has released a statement in which he says that a court order that directs the company to help the F.B.I. unlock an iPhone could threaten the privacy of its customers.

Mr. Cook’s statement, a letter to Apple customers, was posted on the company’s website on Tuesday night, several hours after a judge in California ordered Apple to unlock an iPhone used by one of the gunmen in the December attack in San Bernardino, Calif, that killed 14 people.

In his statement, Mr. Cook called the court order an “unprecedented step” on the part of the United States government and he said that Apple would not comply.

“We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand,” he wrote.

This is not the first time that Apple has tussled with the F.B.I over whether it should create tools to de-encrypt its hardware. The F.B.I.’s director, James B. Comey, has stated in the past that some of the bureau’s cases ran the risk of “going dark” if technology companies like Apple stood by their strong encryption standards.

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In the ruling on Tuesday, the judge ordered Apple to bypass security functions on an iPhone 5c used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who was killed by the police along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, and to provide technical assistance. The court also ordered Apple to build special software that would essentially act as a skeleton key capable of unlocking the phone.

Apple, in its response, said that the requested measures amounted to creating a back door to bypass the company’s strong encryption standards.

“The F.B.I. 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 back door,” Mr. Cook wrote. “And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment beyond the information provided in the statement.

Apple is not alone in its opposition to the court order. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit organization, explained on Tuesday that it supported Apple’s position. “The government is asking Apple to create a master key so that it can open a single phone,” it said on its website. “And once that master key is created, we’re certain that our government will ask for it again and again, for other phones, and turn this power against any software or device that has the audacity to offer strong security.”

Mr. Cook noted that in the San Bernardino case, Apple had already shared data with the F.B.I., provided engineers to advise the agency and complied with “valid subpoenas and search warrants.”

“This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake,” Mr. Cook wrote. “We are challenging the F.B.I.’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country.”

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