Clash over iPhone encryption hots up

The lock screen of an Apple iPhone 6 is seen in Columbia, South Carolina.
The lock screen of an Apple iPhone 6 is seen in Columbia, South Carolina. PHOTO: EPA

US govt seeks federal court order to force Apple to unlock shooter's phone as part of probe

WASHINGTON • The United States government has sought a court order to force Apple to help unlock an iPhone as part of the probe into last year's San Bernardino attacks, escalating a legal showdown over encryption.

The motion sought to counter Apple's claim that cooperating with the FBI probe would undermine overall security for its devices, and laid out the legal case for technical assistance.

"The order does not, as Apple's public statement alleges, require Apple to create or provide a 'back door' to every iPhone," said the motion, which was filed in a federal court in California. "It does not provide 'hackers and criminals' access to iPhones; it does not require Apple to 'hack (its) own users' or to 'decrypt' its own phones."

But a senior Apple executive, speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity, characterised the Justice Department's filing on Friday as an effort to argue its case in the media before the company has a chance to respond.

The filing comes after Apple pledged last week to fight a magistrate's order to assist in unlocking an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the December attacks, which have sharpened the public debate over encryption.

MISINTERPRETATION

The order does not, as Apple's public statement alleges, require Apple to create or provide a 'back door' to every iPhone. It does not provide 'hackers and criminals' access to iPhones; it does not require Apple to 'hack (its) own users' or to 'decrypt' its own phones.

US GOVERNMENT'S MOTION, which was filed in a federal court in California

Apple chief executive Tim Cook took a public stand against the request. But the government's new motion said that Apple's public statements suggest it is basing its defence on "marketing concerns".

"Apple did not assert that it lacks the technical capability" to help, the motion said, but is refusing in part because of "a perceived negative impact on its reputation and marketing strategy were it to provide the ordered assistance".

A hearing in the case is set for March 22, according to the motion.

The FBI is seeking Apple's help to unlock an iPhone 5C used by Syed Farook who, along with his wife, killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California.

They want Apple to disable a feature that wipes data from the phone when too many attempts are made to guess the passcode.

But Apple's Mr Cook has said it is too risky to provide the requested software. "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 back door to the iPhone," he said in a message to customers last week.

Another senior Apple executive said Congress is the right place for a debate over encryption, not a courtroom. The two senior Apple executives who spoke to Reuters said the company has worked hard to help investigators.

The White House said last week it supports the request by the FBI and Department of Justice.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the order is "simply asking for something that would have an impact on this one device".

Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym's order is based on the 1789 All Writs Act, which lays out broad authority for the courts to help enforcement of the law.

Yet Apple and many in the tech sector fear that complying could open the door for broader requests to unlock devices and, ultimately, more widespread surveillance.

The case has also become a topic in the US presidential race.

Republican front runner Donald Trump on Friday called for a "boycott" against Apple until the company complied with the court order.

US officials have declined to speculate how the courts may enforce the order, but Apple in theory could be held in contempt, with a number of penalties, if it fails to comply.

The case is likely to face appeals from both sides, and could end up before the US Supreme Court.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'Clash over iPhone encryption hots up'. Print Edition | Subscribe