The Apple vs. FBI controversy going on right now is quite the techno-political drama. At the core of it is a topic that isn’t so simple — encryption — and it’s all unfolding very rapidly and from many corners of the Internet.
Some people have come up with a snarky shorthand for the case: FBiOS, a portmanteau of FBI and iOS that represents a version of the Apple operating system that would meet the needs of the FBI. Unfortunately, this encapsulation hides the complexity of the situation.
The outcome of the case may have staggering implications. It affects Apple, currently the most valuable company in the world, and it could change the way millions of people view their iPhones: trusted smartphone or potential government surveillance tool?
To help you stay on top of the story, we’ve put together a breakdown of the important players in the case and their actions so far. We’ll update this post as events unfold, so you’ll never miss a beat.
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Tuesday, February 16
The issue came alive as Reuters reported that U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the U.S. District Court’s Central District of California had ordered Apple to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) unlock the Apple 5c formerly owned by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two killers in the San Bernardino mass shooting in December.
The news came a week after FBI director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the FBI was still in possession of the phone and that the device remained encrypted, according to USA Today.
One of the key issues the FBI sought help with, as reported by Reuters, was in getting around the iPhone’s authentication safeguard, which disables access after a certain number of incorrect passcodes have been attempted.
Wednesday, February 17
Apple CEO Tim Cook came out swinging in response the court order. He issued a defiant letter on the Apple homepage entitled: “A Message to Our Customers.” The FBI had asked Apple “to build a backdoor to the iPhone,” Cook wrote.
The rhetoric was ominous. Cook’s use of the word “backdoor” harked back to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, whose leaked documents described the NSA’s apparent backdoors into Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft services. Each of those companies had denied the allegations of illegal government access immediately after initial reports of the NSA’s PRISM program surfaced. “We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order,” Apple said in a statement at that time.
In the case of the San Bernardino shooter, as Cook wrote in his letter, the FBI was actually trying to force Apple to create a new version of iOS. In complying with the order, Apple would allow the FBI to attempt millions of passcodes — ultimately circumventing encryption — and then run the new OS on the now-deceased Farook’s iPhone, Cook wrote.
“The FBI 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 backdoor,” 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.”
Cook ended the letter by clearly conveying that Apple would not comply with the judge’s order. “Ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect,” he wrote.
President Obama was surprisingly silent on the whole issue. But White House spokesperson Josh Earnest did tell reporters that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) was “not asking Apple to redesign its product or to create a new backdoor,” despite the claims in Cook’s letter, as Reuters reported. What Obama did personally do on February 17, reported by UPI, was name former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano as the chair and vice chair, respectively, of a new Commission on Enhancing Cybersecurity.
Jan Koum, CEO of Facebook-owned WhatsApp, took to Facebook to show his support for Apple and Cook.
It took about 15 hours, but Google CEO Sundar Pichai finally came to Apple’s side with a five-tweet comment. “We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders,” he wrote. “…But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent.”
Later that same day, the industry group Reform Government Surveillance — which comprises AOL, Apple, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo — published a statement affirming that “technology companies should not be required to build in backdoors to the technologies that keep their users’ information secure.”
At the same time, a number of politicians began to rally behind the FBI and its call for Apple’s help in decrypting the phone. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), for instance, told CNN that if Apple doesn’t comply with the FBI’s request, she and Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) are “prepared to put forward a law which would essentially require that [it do so].” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) issued a similar statement: “Regrettably, the position Tim Cook and Apple have taken shows that they are unwilling to compromise and that legislation is likely the only way to resolve this issue.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), on the other hand, came to Apple’s defence: “Companies should comply with warrants to the extent they are able to do so, but no company should be forced to deliberately weaken its products,” he wrote in a statement.
Thursday, February 18
Twitter cofounder and CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted out his support for Apple and Cook.
Facebook showed its support for Apple in a statement that it provided to VentureBeat:
We condemn terrorism and have total solidarity with victims of terror. Those who seek to praise, promote, or plan terrorist acts have no place on our services. We also appreciate the difficult and essential work of law enforcement to keep people safe. When we receive lawful requests from these authorities we comply. However, we will continue to fight aggressively against requirements for companies to weaken the security of their systems. These demands would create a chilling precedent and obstruct companies’ efforts to secure their products.
Even Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), came out in support of Apple, The Week pointed out. “America is simply more secure with unbreakable end-to-end encryption,” he told Wall Street Journal editor John Bussey on February 17.
But Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both avoided taking sides with either Apple or the FBI in the case. Clinton described the controversy as a “difficult dilemma,” while Sanders said that he was sympathetic to “both” sides, according to the The Intercept.
Friday, February 19
The case became even more interesting as DOJ attorneys filed a motion (PDF) to compel Apple to comply with the FBI’s orders. The attorneys argued that Apple’s unwillingness to work with the FBI “appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy,” as Reuters reported.
The attorneys pointed to a 1977 Supreme Court case pitting the U.S. against the New York Telephone Co. “The conviction that private citizens have a duty to provide assistance to law enforcement officials when it is required is by no means foreign to our traditions,” the justices noted in a footnote to the ruling.
“Apple is not above the law in that regard, and it is perfectly capable of advising consumers that compliance with a discrete and limited court order founded on probable cause is an obligation of a responsible member of the community,” the DOJ attorneys wrote in their filing. “It does not mean the end of privacy.”
Apple countered this filing by getting on the phone with reporters midway through the day and explaining that the password of the Apple ID for the iPhone had been changed within a day of the government obtaining it, as reported by TechCrunch and others. That action blocked Apple from using certain approaches to getting around the device encryption, the executives said, speaking on background. For instance, running an iCloud data backup after the password change was not possible. Additionally, the executives reportedly pointed out that the encryption workaround the FBI wanted would affect more recent iPhones, even those with the Secure Enclave (PDF) coprocessor on the chip, not just older iPhones without Touch ID, like the 5c.
That night, a tweet from a Twitter account associated with San Bernardino County indicated that the county was actually “working cooperatively with the FBI” when it reset the password to Farook’s iPhone 5c, as Gizmodo noted.
The County was working cooperatively with the FBI when it reset the iCloud password at the FBI's request.
— SBCounty (@SBCounty) February 20, 2016
Meanwhile, in court, Judge Pym disclosed in a filing that Apple had sought relief in order to prepare formal opposition to the order and now has until February 26 to comply.
Apple disclosed in its own filing that it was enlisting the representation of prominent information security attorney Marc Zwillinger. Also representing Apple are Nicola Hanna, Eric Vandevelde, Theodore Boutrous Jr., and Theodore Olson (private counsel to former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush).
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump entered the Apple-FBI debate by encouraging people to boycott Apple.
And Comey and Cook were called to testify in front of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, as Re/code reported.
Saturday, February 20
The FBI came forward and admitted — in a statement it emailed to Ars Technica writer Cyrus Farivar — that “the FBI worked with San Bernardino County to reset the iCloud password on December 6th, as the county owned the account and was able to reset the password in order to provide immediate access to the iCloud backup data.” The bureau stated its position that “the reset of the iCloud account does not impact Apple’s ability to assist with the court order under the All Writs Act.”
The statement went on to say that, in any case, assistance from Apple could prove more fruitful than a backup through iCloud. “Through previous testing, we know that direct data extraction from an iOS device often provides more data than an iCloud backup contains,” the FBI wrote. “Even if the password had not been changed and Apple could have turned on the auto-backup and loaded it to the cloud, there might be information on the phone that would not be accessible without Apple’s assistance as required by the All Writs Act order, since the iCloud backup does not contain everything on an iPhone.”
Sunday, February 21
The FBI will get the support of some victims of the San Bernardino shootings when a lawyer files a brief on their behalf in March, Reuters is reporting.
Huawei chief executive Richard Yu threw his support behind Apple in an interview with Bloomberg.
The FBI’s James Comey took to the Lawfare national security blog affiliated with the Brookings Institution and defended the bureau’s actions. “We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land. I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that,” he wrote. “Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn’t. But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead.”
Monday, February 22
Tim Cook sent an internal email to Apple employees thanking them for their support in the ongoing battle with the FBI. In the letter, which was seen by TechCrunch, Cook reiterated much of what he has previously said:
“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.”
However, Cook also stated that he would like to see a new “commission” or “panel of experts” to be established around intelligence, technology, and civil liberties to “discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy and personal freedoms.”
Apple also published a Q&A extension to its public letter last week, which seeks to answer some of the more commonly asked questions relating to the saga. Again, not a lot of new information is given — the company once more states its case that this could set a dangerous legal precedent insofar as there are already authorities across the country waiting for Apple to crumble:
“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.”
Apple also stated that it very much is possible to do what the FBI is asking it to do — “create an entirely new operating system” — but this would undermine its security and pave the way to abuse from third-parties.
The Pew Research Center released the results of a survey of 1,002 U.S. adults that it conducted in the past few days on the subject. The results show that 51 percent of respondents thought Apple should unlock Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone 5c, while 38 percent thought Apple shouldn’t unlock the device. The remaining 11 percent took neither side.
In an interview with Wired writer Jessi Hempel the 2016 Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg himself said, “We lean toward Apple.”
Bill Gates, cofounder and former chief executive of Microsoft, split with some other technology executives by not explicitly siding with Apple, but instead challenging the “backdoor” characterization of Apple’s Tim Cook. “Nobody’s talking about a backdoor,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times. “So that’s not the right question. This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They’re not asking for some general thing. They’re asking for a particular case. … Apple has access to the information. They’re just refusing to provide the access, and the courts will tell them to provide the access or not. You shouldn’t call the access some special thing.” (One day after these comments were published, Gates told Bloomberg that the Financial Times report — and subsequent reports — indicating that he had sided with the FBI rather than Apple “doesn’t state my view on this.”)
Wednesday, February 24
Verizon effectively took the side of Apple. “We support the availability of strong encryption with no back doors,” the telco said in a statement to Bloomberg.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) intend to introduce a bill next week that would mandate the formation of a special commission on encryption in the style of the 9/11 Commission, Federal Times and others reported.
Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman communicated through a blog post that the organization is supporting Apple. “Mozilla believes the U.S. government’s demand for Apple to circumvent their own security protections is a massive overreach,” Surman wrote. “To require Apple to do this would set a dangerous precedent that threatens consumer security going forward.”
Tim Cook went live on national television in a 29-minute interview to talk about the debate with David Muir of ABC News. He challenged the narrative that some have put forward about the case being as simple as privacy vs. national security. “That is overly simplistic, and it is not true. This is also about public safety,” Cook said.
Apple is working on technology that would render the iPhone “impossible” for even the company itself to break into using modern methods, the New York Times reported.
Thursday, February 25
Apple is enhancing the encryption of iCloud backups such that the company would not be able to give law enforcement agencies the encrypted data they might seek, the Financial Times reported.
In an apparent effort to distance itself from the comments of Bill Gates, its former chief executive, Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith said in a Congressional hearing today that the company “wholeheartedly” supports Apple in the case, as The Verge and others reported. The company intends to file an amicus curae brief in support of Apple, Smith said, according to the reports.
Apple filed a motion to vacate the DOJ attorneys’ order.
Monday, February 29
Apple general counsel and senior vice president Bruce Sewell is set to appear at a House Judiciary Committee hearing tomorrow, March 1. His prepared remarks were disseminated to numerous media outlets ahead of the appearance.
“Encryption is a good thing, a necessary thing,” Sewell will tell the House committee, according to Macworld. “Encryption is a good thing, a necessary thing. We have been using it in our products for over a decade. As attacks on our customers’ data become increasingly sophisticated, the tools we use to defend against them must get stronger too. Weakening encryption will only hurt consumers and other well-meaning users who rely on companies like Apple to protect their personal information.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York poked several holes in the government’s legal argument to make Apple unlock Farook’s iPhone.
Tuesday, March 1
Bruce Sewell, the Apple general counsel, went before the House Judiciary Committee, alongside New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Susan Landau, in Washington D.C. While mostly falling back on Apple’s previously stated facts and opinions, Sewell responded to questions from both supporters, challengers, and some elected officials who didn’t seem to fully grasp all elements of the case.
The key takeaway of the hearing was that, unlike the FBI, Apple ultimately did not have any draft legislation to show the committee.
Wednesday, March 2
The nonprofit American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said it’s filing an amicus curae brief in defense of Apple. The filing concludes by stating that “the government’s theory threatens a radical transformation of the relationship between the government and the governed.”
Thursday, March 3
Box filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Apple alongside Amazon, Box, Cisco, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Facebook’s WhatsApp, Google, Google’s Nest, Microsoft, Mozilla, Pinterest, Slack, Snapchat, and Yahoo. Airbnb, Atlassian, Automattic, CloudFlare, eBay, GitHub, Kickstarter, LinkedIn, Mapbox, Medium, Meetup, Reddit, Square, Squarespace, Twilio, Twitter, and Wickr also came down on Apple’s side.
So did Lavabit, the encrypted email service that suddenly shut down in 2013.
Friday, March 4
San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos‘ complete amicus curiae brief in support of the government was posted online. “No one has appointed or elected Apple to be the Orwellian arbiter or definer of privacy for society or even for all of Apple’s customers,” Ramos wrote.
Sunday, March 6
Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering at Apple, published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post playing up the security implications of following through with the government’s demands. “They have suggested that the safeguards of iOS 7 were good enough and that we should simply go back to the security standards of 2013,” wrote Federighi. “But the security of iOS 7, while cutting-edge at the time, has since been breached by hackers. What’s worse, some of their methods have been productized and are now available for sale to attackers who are less skilled but often more malicious.”
Monday, March 7
Several U.S. attorneys filed a formal retort to U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein’s opposition to the application of the All Writs Act in the government’s push to make Apple help it unlock Farook’s iPhone. They took issue with many of Judge Orenstein’s arguments, including how a ruling in favor of the government could have implications on other cases of locked iPhones in law enforcement agencies’ possession.
Steve Wozniak, a cofounder of Apple, sided with Apple in the ongoing case during an interview with Conan O’Brien on TBS’ “Conan” show. “They picked a lame case,” Wozniak said, speaking about the U.S. government. “They picked the lamest case you ever could. The two phones owned by the people that aren’t even convicted terrorists didn’t even have one link to a terrorist organization. Verizon turned over all the phone records, all the SMS messages, so they want to take this other phone that the two didn’t destroy, that was a work phone, it’s so, so lame and worthless to expect something is on it — and get Apple to expose it.”
Thursday, March 10
U.S. Department of Justice lawyers vigorously responded to Apple’s motion to vacate the order to unlock Farook’s iPhone. “Apple and its amici try to alarm this Court with issues of network security, encryption, back doors, and privacy, invoking larger debates before Congress and in the news media. That is a diversion,” the lawyers wrote.
Tuesday, March 15
Apple responded to the DOJ’s response last week to Apple’s original motion to vacate.
Friday, March 18
Former Apple chief executive John Sculley said in an interview with VentureBeat that Apple is “doing what’s right” in the case.
Monday, March 21
In a surprising move, U.S. attorneys wrote in a filing that they’d like to vacate the U.S. District Court hearing scheduled for tomorrow, March 22, in light of the fact that the FBI on March 20 found out about a “possible method” to unlock Farook’s iPhone.
Shortly after the filing appeared, the court held a teleconference with representatives of both parties and ultimately canceled the hearing and also stayed the government’s original February motion to make Apple help the government unlock Farook’s iPhone. The government must provide an update by April 5.
Thursday, March 24
Apple has asked New York judge Margo Brodie to postpone the hearing schedule in the New York case.
Monday, March 28
The government announced in a court filing it has gained access to the data stored on the phone and even moved to vacate the original court order compelling Apple to help the government get into the phone.
Wednesday, April 6
James Comey said in a speech that the method it used to get to the data on Farook’s iPhone only “worked to open this one 5c,” according to a report from BuzzFeed.
Friday, April 8
Lawyers representing the U.S. Department of Justice said they continue to need Apple’s help unlocking an iPhone 5s in the case currently at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Put another way, they aren’t backing down in this case even though they did motion to vacate the San Bernardino case.
Friday, April 22
A U.S. Justice Department attorney submitted a filing in the New York case saying that the government no longer needs Apple’s help unlocking the iPhone at the center of that case, because someone provided the passcode for it.
Note: We’ll post updates as the case continues to unfold.