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Last updated: February 25, 2016 5:44 pm

Apple to beef up customers’ iCloud encryption

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epa05177563 A man holds up an iPhone with a 'No Entry' graphic as part of a rally in front of an Apple Store in support of the company's privacy policy, in New York, New York, USA, 23 February 2016. Apple is currently in a legal dispute with the FBI, which has requested that Apple unlock the iPhone of one of the people involved in the San Bernardino terrorist attacks. EPA/JUSTIN LANE©EPA

Apple is working on new ways to strengthen the encryption of customers’ iCloud backups in a way that would make it impossible for the company to comply with valid requests for data from law enforcement, according to people familiar with its plans.

The move would bolster Apple customers’ security against hackers but also frustrate investigators who are currently able to obtain data from Apple’s servers through a court order.

Apple has complied with thousands of such orders in the past.

Developing such technology is in some ways more complex than adding the kind of device-level security that Apple introduced to the iPhone in 2014 with its iOS 8 update.

Building new protections that mean Apple no longer has access to iCloud encryption keys may inconvenience some customers. Such a change would most likely mean that customers who forget their iCloud password may be left unable to access their photos, contacts and other personal information that is backed up to Apple’s systems.

The plan adds a new twist to Apple’s legal fight with US authorities over access to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. The case has divided US public opinion between those who believe that Apple should help investigators trying to unlock Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone, and others who agree with chief executive Tim Cook that doing so would create a dangerous precedent that threatened customer security.

James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, insisted on Thursday that the San Bernardino case was not an attempt by the government to “establish some precedent” that could be used more broadly in disputes over getting access to encrypted communications because security technologies were changing so quickly.

However, Mr Comey acknowledged that the ruling in the case with Apple “will be instructive for other courts”. Testifying before the House intelligence committee, he said: “There may well be other cases that involve the same kind of phone and same kind of operating system.”

In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, Mr Cook said complying with the FBI’s demand to create a new version of its operating system, which would allow investigators to break into the iPhone, would be like writing “the software equivalent of cancer”.

“There are many things technology should never be allowed to do. The way you do not allow it, is to not create it,” Mr Cook said.

“Security gets better with every software release that we have. Encryption gets more advanced. It has to, to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.”

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Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during the Wall Street Journal Digital Live ( WSJDLive ) conference at the Montage hotline Laguna Beach, California October 19, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake - RTS56LG

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In a conference call with reporters last week, an Apple executive, when asked if the iPhone maker would take further steps to harden its products, said it was reasonable to expect that Apple would continue to strengthen its security.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Apple engineers had already begun developing new security measures that would prevent authorities from accessing an iPhone, even if they were equipped with the kind of software tool that the company is fighting not to write.

Apple declined to comment on its plans.

Speaking to ABC, Mr Cook said he would be prepared to take its current fight with the FBI to the Supreme Court if necessary.

“If a court compels Apple to write this piece of software, to place a backdoor in the iPhone, we believe it does put hundreds of millions of customers at risk,” he said. “This is not about one phone, this is about the future.”

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