Monday morning, Apple Inc. (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook fired back in the company's standoff with U.S. officials over an iPhone used (but not owned) by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. In a public letter to Apple's employees, Cook wrote that "this case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation" and dug his heels in regarding the encryption fight, saying that unlocking Farook's phone would be a "terrible idea."

A Public Face-Off

The FBI has been clashing publicly with Apple through its CEO Tim Cook over a U.S. District Court order requiring Apple to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to the FBI in unlocking Farook's phone.

In response to the order, which was issued on Tuesday, February 16, Cook wrote an open letter to customers, saying that the order had "implications far beyond the legal case at hand" because it "would undeniably create a backdoor" to the iPhone and potentially provide anyone in possession of the software with access to millions of customers' sensitive data. Cook called the order "overreach" and concluded, "we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect."

In a filing on Friday, the Department of Justice criticized Apple's stance, saying the company's "current refusal to comply with the Court's Order, despite the technical feasibility of doing so, instead appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy."

On Sunday, FBI Director James Comey posted an open letter calling on the American people to "take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending." Comey insisted that the FBI doesn't "want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land." He acknowledged the "serious tension between two values we all treasure – privacy and safety," and said that neither corporations nor the FBI should resolve that tension. Rather, "It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before." He made it clear, however, that he hoped the American people would support the FBI's push to unlock the phone: "we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead."

Cook Addresses Apple's Employees

As of Monday morning, Cook has fired back again. In response to the DoJ's charge that Apple is motivated by marketing, he wrote, "We feel strongly that if we were to do what the government has asked of us – to create a backdoor to our products – not only is it unlawful, but it puts the vast majority of good and law abiding citizens, who rely on iPhone to protect their most personal and important data, at risk." He emphasized that Apple has "no sympathy for terrorists" and that it is not possible to unlock just one phone without potentially enabling law enforcement or cybercriminals to use the capability again and again.

He also wrote an internal email to Apple's employees, the full text of which is reproduced below:

Subject: Thank you for your support

Team,

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 on apple.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.

Tim

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Aphabet Inc.'s (GOOG, GOOGL) Google subsidiary has come out in support of Cook, while Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for a boycott of Apple. Some of the San Bernardino victims, Reuters reported Monday, will file a motion opposing Apple

The Bottom Line

The legal issues surrounding encryption and the balance that must be struck between privacy and law enforcement imperatives have been simmering for some time. In the wake of the San Bernardino attack, the conflict is coming to a head. The rhetoric from Apple, the FBI and others makes it clear that the outcome is crucially important to "the American people," to the point that one could be forgiven for thinking it will be put to some kind of referendum. Of course it will not, although Congress, as Cook has suggested, could still get involved.

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