Apple, FBI in 'PR war': Cybersecurity expert

Silicon Valley heavyweights back Apple
Apple's very public PR war with the feds   

Apple's legal encounter with the FBI does not boil down to a fundamental right to privacy, but rather a battle of appearances, Michael Fertik, Internet security expert at Reputation.com, said Friday.

"The FBI and Apple are in a 'PR war.' The FBI has a backlog of requests that Apple has only been partly complying with for about half a year," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box."

"They chose an extremely controversial request, the San Bernardino request, to pin [Apple CEO] Tim Cook and Apple to the wall and say 'Look, if you are not complying with this request, you are in fact aiding and abetting the terrorists,'" he said.

"Tim Cook is saying, 'We have customers, we protect our customers, we stand up for our customers,'" said Fertik.

Cook released an open letter to customers on Tuesday denouncing a U.S. magistrate judge's order to aid the FBI in unlocking an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, a shooter in the San Bernardino, California, attack. He said that doing this would put other iPhone users in danger of having their phones hacked.

The Department of Justice, on the other hand, said the order would only apply to Farook's phone.

In the end, Fertik said, "Tim Cook and Apple are raising the bar that the FBI … are going to have to clear in order to get their request complied with."

"I don't think anyone predicts that Apple is never going to agree to comply with national security cooperation requests from law enforcement. However, Apple may be saying 'Look, if you're the local DA in Tupelo, Mississippi, and you don't know how to open an iPhone, you should not have to resort to imposing on Apple employees to open that iPhone.'"

Apple has until Saturday to formally oppose the magistrate judge's order.

The phone is owned by Farook's former employer, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. The agency has supported federal investigators' requests to search the contents of the device.