THE FBI WANTED A BACKDOOR TO THE IPHONE. TIM COOK SAID NO

IN 2016, TIM Cook fought the law—and won.

Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, February 16, 2016, Cook and several lieutenants gathered in the “junior boardroom” on the executive floor at One Infinite Loop, Apple’s old headquarters. The company had just received a writ from a US magistrate ordering it to make specialized software that would allow the FBI to unlock an iPhone used by Syed Farook, a suspect in the San Bernardino shooting in December 2015 that left 14 people dead.

The iPhone was locked with a four-digit passcode that the FBI had been unable to crack. The FBI wanted Apple to create a special version of iOS that would accept an unlimited combination of passwords electronically, until the right one was found. The new iOS could be side-loaded onto the iPhone, leaving the data intact.

But Apple had refused. Cook and his team were convinced that a new unlocked version of iOS would be very, very dangerous. It could be misused, leaked, or stolen, and once in the wild, it could never be retrieved. It could potentially undermine the security of hundreds of millions of Apple users.

In the boardroom, Cook and his team went through the writ line by line. They needed to decide what Apple’s legal position was going to be and figure out how long they had to respond. It was a stressful, high-stakes meeting. Apple was given no warning about the writ, even though Cook, Apple’s top lawyer, Bruce Sewell, and others had been actively speaking about the case to law enforcement for weeks.

The writ “was not a simple request for assistance in a criminal case,” explained Sewell. “It was a forty-two-page pleading by the government that started out with this litany of the horrible things that had been done in San Bernardino. And then this . . . somewhat biased litany of all the times that Apple had said no to what were portrayed as very reasonable requests. So this was what, in the law, we call a speaking complaint. It was meant to from day one tell a story . . . that would get the public against Apple.”

The team came to the conclusion that the judge’s order was a PR move—a very public arm twisting to pressure Apple into complying with the FBI’s demands—and that it could be serious trouble for the company. Apple “is a famous, incredibly powerful consumer brand and we are going to be standing up against the FBI and saying in effect, ‘No, we’re not going to give you the thing that you’re looking for to try to deal with this terrorist threat,’” said Sewell.

They knew that they had to respond immediately. The writ would dominate the next day’s news, and Apple had to have a response. “Tim knew that this was a massive decision on his part,” Sewell said. It was a big moment, “a bet-the-company kind of decision.” Cook and the team stayed up all night—a straight 16 hours—working on their response. Cook already knew his position—Apple would refuse—but he wanted to know all the angles: What was Apple’s legal position? What was its legal obligation? Was this the right response? How should it sound? How should it read? What was the right tone?

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