Apple asks to block court order to help decrypt iPhone
WASHINGTON, United States—Apple fired back at the US government Thursday in the encryption standoff, asking a federal court to dismiss an order that would force the company to help unlock an iPhone.
In the latest development in the case stemming from last year’s San Bernardino attacks, Apple said in a court filing that the government overstepped its legal authority in trying to force the company to facilitate access to the locked iPhone used by one of the shooters.
“No court has ever authorized what the government now seeks, no law supports such unlimited and sweeping use of the judicial process, and the constitution forbids it,” Apple’s lawyers wrote in the motion filed in California federal court.
The Apple response is the latest in the fight over how far the company must go in helping US law enforcement access a device with data locked by encryption that only the user can normally access.
“The government demands that Apple create a back door to defeat the encryption on the iPhone, making its users’ most confidential and personal information vulnerable to hackers, identity thieves, hostile foreign agents and unwarranted government surveillance,” Apple’s brief said.
Apple executives, who briefed reporters on condition they not be quoted directly, said the order would effectively require the creation of “a new operating system” or “government OS” which could be used repeatedly by FBI forensics experts and potentially leak out to others.
On this basis, the iPhone maker is arguing that the government effort violates Apple’s constitutional rights of free speech, by forcing it to write software that undermines its values.
Apple’s brief also said the legal showdown came despite a pledge by government officials not to seek legislation for easier access to encrypted devices.
“If anything, the question whether companies like Apple should be compelled to create a back door to their own operating systems to assist law enforcement is a political question, not a legal one,” the Apple filing said.
Apple’s tech rivals closed ranks, with Microsoft and Google announcing they would file briefs in court supporting the iPhone maker. Facebook meanwhile endorsed a collective letter supporting Apple.
Microsoft Vice President Brad Smith, appearing in Congress on Thursday, said, “We do not believe that courts should seek to resolve issues of 21st-century technology with law that was written in the era of the adding machine.”
The Apple filing comes one week after the US Justice Department filed a motion to compel Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” sought by the FBI.
The government filing, in sharp contrast to that of Apple, said the order would not require a “back door to every iPhone.”
The Justice Department said Apple’s public statements suggest it is basing its defense on “marketing concerns” and that the company was not being asked to hand over any sensitive software that could be used by hackers.
Earlier Thursday, FBI Director James Comey reiterated his position at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
“The San Bernardino litigation is not about us trying to send a message or establish some kind of precedent,” Comey told lawmakers at the House Intelligence Committee.
“It’s about trying to be competent in investigating something that is an active investigation.”
The phone at the center of the standoff belonged to Syed Farook, a US citizen, who carried out the attack on an office party in San Bernardino along with his Pakistani wife Tashfeen Malik. The attack left 14 dead.
Lawmakers eye ‘solution’
Separately, US lawmakers moved to break the deadlock that has divided the public by calling a hearing with the FBI and Apple in an effort to craft “a solution.”
The hearing called by the House Judiciary Committee for next Tuesday will be the first in Congress since Apple said it would challenge the court order.
“Our goal is to find a solution that allows law enforcement to effectively enforce the law without harming the competitiveness of US encryption providers or the privacy protections of US citizens,” said a statement from Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, and ranking Democrat John Conyers of Michigan.
The panel has already been briefed on the issue by technology companies and the government.
A statement said scheduled witnesses include FBI chief Comey and Bruce Sewell, Apple’s senior vice president and general counsel.
Also scheduled to appear are Susan Landau, a cybersecurity expert at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Cyrus Vance Jr., the New York district attorney who has criticized Apple for locking its iPhones without allowing law enforcement access.
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