Apple chief executive Tim Cook is pushing back against a judge's orders to help the FBI crack the passcode to a terrorist's cellphone. Will he prevail? (Photo Collage TheImproper)

Apple chief executive Tim Cook is pushing back against a judge’s orders to help the FBI crack the passcode to a terrorist’s cellphone. Will he prevail? (Photo Collage TheImproper)

Apple Inc. is pushing back against the U.S. government in its quest to crack the iPhone of the San Bernardino Islamic terrorists. The case could be the first to establish a far-reaching legal precedent governing the right to telephone privacy.

The bureau is searching for evidence about Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who killed 14 people in the Dec. 2 mass shooting, according to FBI director James Comey.

But so far, the agency has been locked out of one of the killers’ phone. It turned to the tech company to help circumvent the iPhone’s built-in passcode security.

The bureau won ruling from US Federal Magistrate Sheri Pym ordering Apple to comply. She cited an arcane law that goes back to the founding of the republic as precedent.

The judge also ordered Apple to create software the FBI can use to turn off a phone’s auto-erase feature.

But so far, the company is taking a stand on civil liberty. Who knew?

“The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand,” said Apple chief executive Tim Cook.

He charges the government with “overreach,” which unfortunately has been a tad overused lately by right-wing patriot groups. Nonetheless, Cook has a valid point.

“The US government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone,” he explained in a statement.

The problem is the technology could easily fall into the wrong hands. “Any iPhone in someone’s physical possession” could be unlocked leading to all kinds of data breaches. That could include personal, financial and health data.

Hand-held devices, of course, are more than a means of communicating. They are virtual mini-personal computers. They have the capability to perform all kinds of tasks.

Most of today’s phones can access the Web, pay bills, taking photos and video, store maps and personal data, chart user locations and a host of other things through the use of software applications.

“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 CEO said.

Cook elaborated:

“Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe. We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack. The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals.”

The iPhone’s passcode system is set up to deter so-called “brute force” entries. The technique relies on simply guessing the correct code. But with each wrong number, the phone slows down, drawing out the guessing game.

It would take as long as five years to test every possible combination, according to the company.

Although the iPhone is cutting edge technology, Pym cited a statute known as the “All Writs Act of 1789” to justify the FBI’s request. It gives court broad authority to enforce their orders, according to legal references.

“The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. 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 to capture their data,” Cook asserted.

Let us know your thoughts. Should Apple stand strong, or give it up? For the latest developments on this story, be sure to follow IM on Twitter.