When Apple announced this week it would not help the FBI break open an iPhone used by a shooter in the San Bernardino attacks, the tech giant did not fall back on that dry hallmark of corporate America, the public statement.

Instead, Apple's resistance came in the form of a forceful, fiercely worded letter personally signed by its chief executive, Tim Cook, who has quickly become one of America's most prominent and outspoken corporate activists.

"We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack," Cook wrote. "We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the US government."

On July 27, 2014, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection provided this photo showing Tashfeen Malik, left, and Syed Farook. Photo / AP
On July 27, 2014, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection provided this photo showing Tashfeen Malik, left, and Syed Farook. Photo / AP

Cook has become a surprisingly candid firebrand atop the most valuable company on the planet, which was made infamous for corporate stealth and secrecy under its co-founder and former chief executive, the late Steve Jobs.

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But while Apple, now worth more than half a trillion dollars, has remained guarded, Cook has opened up - speaking out vehemently on gender discrimination, cybersecurity, climate change and "political crap."

Cook's strong stance on digital privacy, which he has called a "fundamental human right," is a long-standing one, and it has earned him applause from groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which honored him at its annual "Champions of Freedom" event last summer in Washington.

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In 2014, Cook told journalist Charlie Rose that "if the government laid a subpoena to get iMessages, we can't provide it," adding, "Our business is not based on having information about you. You're not our product."

In December, on "60 Minutes," he repeated that view: "I don't believe that the tradeoff here is privacy versus national security. I think that's an overly simplistic view. We're America. We should have both."

A U.S. magistrate judge ordered Apple to help the FBI break into a work-issued iPhone used by one of the two gunmen in the mass shooting at San Bernardino. Photo / AP
A U.S. magistrate judge ordered Apple to help the FBI break into a work-issued iPhone used by one of the two gunmen in the mass shooting at San Bernardino. Photo / AP

But Cook has also charged into arenas far removed from modern tech. He told climate-change-denying investors in 2014 to "get out of this stock" after they complained about the company's pledge to slash greenhouse-gas emissions.

Under Cook, Apple has also publicly supported workplace-equality bills, advocated for same-sex marriage and opposed state measures that would discriminate against gays and lesbians, including in Alabama, his native state.

He became the first openly gay chief of a major American company in 2014 when he wrote in a public essay that he was "proud to be gay," adding that he "will personally continue to advocate for equality for all people until my toes point up."

Since then, Cook has penned aggressive editorials, including an essay last March in the Washington Post, saying "religious freedom" bills "rationalize injustice by pretending to defend something many of us hold dear."

If the government laid a subpoena to get iMessages, we can't provide it. Our business is not based on having information about you. You're not our product.

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He has also used some of that oratory firepower to stand up for Apple, calling congressional claims that the company profits off an overseas tax scheme "total political crap."

Cook's high-profile advocacy has earned him love from Apple's peers and rivals in Silicon Valley. After Cook came out, Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg wrote, "Thank you Tim for showing what it means to be a real, courageous and authentic leader."

Cook's headline-grabbing stare-down with the FBI could, as cynics have said, be seen an incredible promotional opportunity for Apple, the chief seller and protector of the virtually uncrackable iPhone.

But Cook's deep involvement could help boost his prestige, too, in the eyes of customers and, perhaps more importantly, in the minds that Silicon Valley spends heavily to recruit. Who doesn't want a gutsy, stands-up-to-the-man CEO to make their phone, or be their boss?

WHAT MAKES THIS RULING SO IMPORTANT?

Federal law enforcement and leading technology companies have long been at an impasse about how to balance digital privacy for consumers against the responsibility of federal agents and police to investigate crimes or terrorism.

HOW'S APPLE SUPPOSED TO HELP?

The judge's order forces Apple to create and supply highly specialized software that the FBI can load onto the iPhone. That software would bypass a self-destruct feature that erases the phone's data after too many unsuccessful attempts to guess the passcode. The FBI wants to be able to try different combinations in rapid sequence until it finds the right one.

WHAT IMPACT WILL THIS HAVE ON OTHER APPLE USERS?

The Justice Department said it's asking Apple only to help unlock the iPhone used by Farook. The judge said the software should include a "unique identifier" so that it can't be used to unlock other iPhones. Cook warned, "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."

WHAT DID APPLE SAY?

Cook said the company was being asked to take an "unprecedented step" that would threaten the security of Apple's customers. The company defended its use of encryption as the only way to keep its customers' personal data - their music, private conversations and photos- from being hacked. The statement foreshadows a fierce legal fight.

HOW IS THIS LEGAL?

Pym relied on the 1789 All Writs Act, which has been used many times in the past by the government to require a third party to aid law enforcement in its investigation. Apple's CEO said the government was trying to dangerously expand what the law requires a third party to do. He said the government could require Apple to build surveillance software or more to help law enforcement. In a months-long federal case in New York, another federal judge has delayed ruling on whether the law can compel Apple to help the government break the security on its devices. That case remains pending.

- with AP