Friday 6 December 2019

Apple go to court over locked iPhone order

FBI director James Comey appears at a House Intelligence Committee hearing (AP)
FBI director James Comey appears at a House Intelligence Committee hearing (AP)
Apple chief executive Tim Cook

Apple has asked a federal magistrate in Washington to vacate her order that it help the FBI hack into a locked iPhone.

The company said in a court filing on Thursday that the FBI is seeking "dangerous power" through the courts.

A week ago, a federal magistrate in California directed Apple to help the FBI hack into a phone used by one of the assailants in the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

Earlier Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, told ABC News that it would be "bad for America" if his company complied with the FBI's demand and that he was prepared to take the fight to the Supreme Court.

The policy issues raised in the US Justice Department's dispute with Apple represent the "hardest question I've seen in government," FBI director James Comey has said.

"It's really about who do we want to be as a country and how do we want to govern ourselves," Mr Comey told the House Intelligence Committee.

Mr Comey reaffirmed what he posted in a blog Sunday night that the Justice Department was not trying to set a precedent by going to court to obtain access to the phone.

Instead, he said: "It's about trying to be competent in trying to investigate something that is an active investigation."

Mr Comey said Apple had been "very cooperative" in the months leading up to the court fight and that there have been "plenty" of negotiations between the two sides. But at some point, Apple reached a point where it was not willing to do what FBI was asking.

Mr Comey acknowledged that last week's order could help guide other courts considering the same issue in the future. But he rejected Apple's assertion that the order could create a slippery slope affecting millions of other iPhone users.

He insisted that the code the FBI was asking Apple to create would work only on that one phone and would be retained by Apple.

Apple has argued that doing so would make other iPhones more susceptible to hacking by authorities or criminals in the future.

The filing represents Apple's first official response to last week's order.

The Justice Department is proposing a "boundless interpretation" of the law that, if left unchecked, could bring disastrous repercussions for digital privacy, the company warned in a memo submitted to magistrate Sheri Pym.

"The government says: 'Just this once' and 'Just this phone.' But the government knows those statements are not true," lawyers for Apple wrote.

Apple said the specialised software the government wants it to build does not currently exist and "would require significant resources and effort to develop," including the work of six to 10 engineers working two to four weeks.

The magistrate judge suggested in her ruling that the government would be required to pay Apple's costs.

"No court has ever authorised what the government now seeks, no law supports such unlimited and sweeping use of the judicial process, and the Constitution forbids it," Apple said.

It accused the government of working under a closed courtroom process under the auspices of a terrorism investigation of trying "to cut off debate and circumvent thoughtful analysis".

"The government wants to compel Apple to create a crippled and insecure product," the company said. "Once the process is created, it provides an avenue for criminals and foreign agents to access millions of iPhones."

Apple pointedly noted the US government itself fell victim to hackers, when thieves stole the personal information of tens of millions of current and former federal workers and their family members from the US Office of Personnel Management.

PA Media

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