Apple’s refusal to help the FBI unlock an iPhone 5c used by one of the terrorists in the San Bernardino, California attack on Dec. 2 has prompted the Maricopa County attorney’s office in Arizona to ban providing new iPhones to its staff.
“Apple’s refusal to cooperate with a legitimate law enforcement investigation to unlock a phone used by terrorists puts Apple on the side of terrorists instead of on the side of public safety,” Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said in a statement on Wednesday.
Montgomery described Apple’s refusal to cooperate on privacy grounds as a corporate public relations stunt. The evidence obtained through searches using warrants to unlock encrypted smartphones, including iPhones, have proved critical to the investigation and prosecution of defendants charged with drug trafficking, sexual exploitation, murder and other serious offenses, he added.
The county prosecutor's decision is more symbolic and is unlikely to impact Apple’s sales as there are 564 smartphones deployed throughout the office, 366 of which are iPhones. But it could be an indication of the various levers available to law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to try to get Apple to come around to its point of view. "If Apple wants to be the official smartphone of terrorists and criminals, there will be a consequence,” Montgomery said.
Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ordered Apple last week to provide assistance, including by providing signed software if required, to help the FBI try different passcodes by brute force on the locked iPhone 5c, without triggering an auto-erase feature in the phone.
Apple CEO Tim Cook said in an email to employees that it was possible to do what the FBI was asking, but added that the company believes it "too dangerous to do," as it would undermine the security features of the device.
The company’s decision hasn’t gone down well with many other people, besides Montgomery. A study released Monday by the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of respondents said they think Apple should unlock the iPhone to help the FBI with its investigation, while 38 percent opposed it. Eleven percent of the respondents had no opinion either way.
The decision by the Maricopa County attorney's office, first disclosed to the relevant staff on Sunday, was made public on Wednesday. The county office will discontinue providing iPhones as replacements or upgrades for existing employees. It has over 900 full-time employees.