By John Kiriakou

Martin Meissner / AP

Apple CEO Tim Cook found himself this week as the country’s leading bulwark against the FBI and the Obama administration’s continuing efforts to weaken Americans’ constitutional protections and civil liberties.

Cook is fighting a federal magistrate judge’s order that would force Apple to create software to bypass the iPhone’s security features and give the FBI access to people’s phones and everything on them. On Tuesday he wrote a letter to all Apple users explaining the company’s position and promising to keep up the fight.

Here’s what’s at stake. The FBI is investigating December’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in which Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife killed 14 people. (The couple then died in a battle with police.) The agency wants to gain access to the iPhone used by gunman Farook. But it contends that the only way to do so is to force Apple to create a “back door” that would allow the FBI to access the phone’s information remotely.

The FBI insists that this is a one-off — the only time such a request would be made. That is ridiculous on its face. Another court already has demanded the same access, in a narcotics case. And it’s not even just about these two cases. It’s about civil liberties and the right to privacy that every American expects.

The FBI argues that it is not asking for a back door, that it wants access only to Farook’s phone. This is absurd. As Cook wrote to Apple users, “The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks—from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

Furthermore, rather than address the issue legislatively, the government decided to use the All Writs Act of 1789 to force it. The All Writs Act was used in past centuries to compel people or businesses not involved in a case to execute court orders—in other words, the government knows better than you do, so just do as you’re told.

The implications of this, according to Cook, are “chilling.” The executive goes on to write: “If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device and capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”

The constitutional implications are indeed chilling. If the government gets its way, nothing would be private. With a secret order from a friendly judge, your phone company or manufacturer would have to provide all information on your phone to the FBI, including call logs, text messages, emails, chat transcripts, even photos. Are you calling a secret girlfriend or boyfriend? Are you calling an abortion provider? A psychiatrist? Do you look at porn, and, if so, what kind? Nothing would be private. Nothing would be sacred. The government would have access to everything. And worse yet, those same tools that the FBI wants could easily fall into the hands of hackers, criminals and even foreign intelligence services. Once Pandora’s box is open, there’s no closing it.

Another issue is at play here, too. It’s that the FBI dropped the ball on Farook months ago and is trying to cover its mistakes. “Federal law enforcement officials” (news-speak for “FBI agents”) told CNN in December that Farook had been in touch with “more than one terrorism suspect who the FBI were already investigating” well before the shootings. Why wasn’t the FBI intercepting his communications then? He was clearly a potential threat. Why was there no surveillance? It’s because the FBI botched the case and now is trying to shift the attention and make Apple—and privacy—the fall guys.

Americans have to stand firm against government overreach. We must support Apple and its efforts to protect our privacy. We already have lost many of our civil liberties since the 9/11 attacks. It’s time to turn the tide. Our privacy is worth fighting for.

John Kiriakou spent 14 years at the CIA and two years in a federal prison for blowing the whistle on the agency’s use of torture. He served on John Kerry’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee for two years as senior investigator into the Middle East. He writes and speaks about national security, whistleblowing, the prison-industrial complex, and foreign policy, and is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and winner of the 2015 PEN Center USA First Amendment award.


If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.

Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.