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Apple calls for government commission to settle encryption debate

Company reaffirms resistance to FBI order to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Apple CEO Tim Cook has called on the FBI to withdraw its demand for backdoor access to an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists, saying that the debate over encryption, privacy, and national security should instead be settled by a commission of experts. The company outlined its position in a Q&A page on its website, reaffirming its resistance to the court order.

In an internal memo obtained by BuzzFeed News, Cook thanked Apple employees for their support and outlined the company's stance against the court order, which he said would set "a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties." On its Q&A page, the company said it would "gladly participate" in a congressional hearing on the matter.

"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," he wrote.

"The only way to guarantee that such a powerful tool isn’t abused and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands is to never create it."

Last week, a federal judge ordered Apple to unlock an iPhone 5c used by Syed Farook, who together with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in a December terrorist attack in San Bernardino. The FBI has argued that the data on Farook's phone could help determine who he was communicating with prior to the attacks, but Apple has so far refused to comply with the demand on the grounds that it would jeopardize the privacy and security of all iPhone users.

On its Q&A page, Apple acknowledges that it's technically possible to comply with the order, though it says doing so would require the company to develop "an entirely new operating system to undermine our security features as the government wants." The software would make iPhones vulnerable to "brute force" attacks, the company said, and could make it easier for the government to conduct broader surveillance in the future.

"The only way to guarantee that such a powerful tool isn’t abused and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands is to never create it," Apple said.

Intelligence officials have downplayed Apple's concerns, while suggesting that the company is using the issue to promote its brand. "We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land," FBI Director James Comey wrote in a blog post Sunday, adding that privacy issues should not be determined by "corporations that sell stuff for a living."

Apple contests that argument on its Q&A page, saying: "Law enforcement agents around the country have already said they have hundreds of iPhones they want Apple to unlock if the FBI wins this case." In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. was asked, "If there is access to this phone, you want access to all those phones that you think are crucial in a criminal proceeding?" According to The New York Times, Vance responded: "Absolutely right."