Apple is bracing itself for the fight of the century.
On Tuesday Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of Federal District Court for the District of Central California ordered the tech company to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation hack into the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook.
The FBI seeks software that would bypass an iPhone's feature that erases the phone's contents after 10 failed attempts at the password; the software would allow the federal agency to test an unlimited number of password combinations until it's successful. Without Farook's password, all the data on the phone remains encrypted.
Apple said it does not have the software to undermine its own security features and that engineering it would be too dangerous.
"We were shocked and outraged by the deadly act of terrorism in San Bernardino last December. We mourn the loss of life and want justice for all those whose lives were affected. ... We have no sympathy for terrorists," Cook wrote. Up to this point, he wrote, Apple has been fully compliant with the FBI's request for assistance, and he explained, in no uncertain words, his company's stance:
We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. 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.
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. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession.
The iPhone 5c was supplied to Farook by his employer, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. The FBI seeks to access his phone's data between Oct. 19 — when Farook stopped backing his phone up to the iCloud, an act the FBI suspects was linked to his plan — and the attack on Dec. 2.
Apple said complying with the order would create a dangerous precedent and essentially equip the government with "the equivalent of a master key," which would allow it to access millions of people's data. But Cook alluded he is skeptical that the FBI would only use the supposed software or the precedent the court order would set only once.
Should the government override Apple's appeal, it could recalibrate the dynamic between the government and tech companies, which have largely resisted such requests, to make encrypted data more easily accessible.
"Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government," Cook concluded.
"While we believe the FBI's intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products," Cook wrote. "And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect."
Feb. 17, 2016, 9:18 a.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.