Apple’s refusal to break into a terrorist’s encrypted iPhone is heading to Washington, but it remains to be seen if it goes all the way up to the US Supreme Court. If it does, CEO Tim Cook and his legal team are ready.
In a court filing submitted Thursday, Apple argued that the Justice Department was overstepping its bounds by ordering the company to unlock a phone used by one of the shooters who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California on December 2nd.
“Compelling Apple to create software in this case will set a dangerous precedent for conscripting Apple and other technology companies to develop technology to do the government’s bidding in untold future criminal investigations,” the company stated in its motion.
“Apple strongly supports, and will continue to support, the efforts of law enforcement in pursuing justice against terrorists and other criminals — just as it has in this case and many others,” the company said in its filing, known as a motion to vacate. “But the unprecedented order requested by the government finds no support in the law and would violate the Constitution.”
Cook is assuring customers that the company will protect their data at any cost, making privacy a pillar of the brand, and appearing on ABC News this week to defend his stance. “I don’t know where this stops. But I do know that this is not what should be happening in this country,” he commented.
He’s also got some powerful allies: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and Microsoft are backing Apple by filing friend-of-the-court filings. “I don’t think building back doors is the way to go, so we’re pretty sympathetic to Tim and Apple,” Zuckerberg said.
China also is on Apple’s side. Yu Chengdong of Huawei said this week, “Tim Cook attached great importance to privacy protection. It’s also very important to Huawei.”
Jia Yueting, CEO of streaming video giant LeTV, shared a post about the Apple-FBI standoff on Sina Weibo and commented: “We should support every [business] decision that’s based on customer benefits.”
The stand-off has sparked a debate over how much law enforcement and intelligence officials should be able to access individuals’ digital communications, even if the intention is to thwart terrorism.
Apple said in its brief on Thursday that software was a form of protected speech so the Justice Department’s demand violated the constitution.
“The government’s request here creates an unprecedented burden on Apple and violates Apple’s First Amendment rights against compelled speech,” it said.
“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 added in its filing.
In a statement responding to Apple’s filing, the Justice Department said its stance remains unchanged.
It’s a closely-watched case at a time when tech companies have access to private customer data and a government eager to have greater access to that information.
Apple has said customer data must remain accessible only to customers to protect their civil liberties.
The case may eventually end up before the Supreme Court. Cook has said, “We would be prepared to take this issue all the way.”
In a sit-down interview with ABC News on Wednesday, Cook said giving it to the FBI’s request would be creating the “software equivalent of cancer.”
As Cook wrote in his letter to customers, “This case is not about one phone. This case is about the future. What is at stake here is: Can the government compel Apple to write software that we believe would make hundreds of millions of customers vulnerable around the world, including the U.S. and also trample civil liberties that are at the basic foundation at what this country was made on?”
Apple engineers, meanwhile, are evidently hard at work on new security features making it virtually impossible for the government to open a locked iPhone going forward.
“If Apple succeeds in upgrading its security — and experts say it almost surely will — the company will create a significant technical challenge for law enforcement agencies, even if the Obama administration wins its fight over access to data stored on an iPhone used by one of the killers in last year’s San Bernardino, Calif., rampage,” writes The New York Times.
“If the Federal Bureau of Investigation wanted to get into a phone in the future, it would need a new way to do so. That would most likely prompt a new cycle of court fights and, yet again, more technical fixes by Apple.”