Photographer: Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg

Battle Over San Bernardino Shooter's iPhone Escalates

  • Both sides push arguments as legal process gets under way
  • March 22 hearing set on whether Apple must help unlock iPhone

The U.S. government and Apple Inc. escalated their battle over accessing data on the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers, raising the stakes in the high-profile standoff about the balance between law enforcement and privacy in the digital age.

The Department of Justice on Friday asked a California judge to compel Apple to provide tools that will make it easier for investigators to unlock the phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, saying the company’s refusal amounted to putting profits over security. Apple executives quickly responded, saying that the U.S. government is overreaching and threatening to set a precedent that undermines civil liberties.

The case centers around whether the government can require Apple to write new software to compromise a key security feature of the company’s iOS mobile operating system. The government argues this is a one-off request that will aid an important terrorist investigation, while Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has said it could lead to the government, criminals or other parties gaining the ability to “intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”

Apple Assistance

Apple executives said on Friday that they tried to help law enforcement unlock the phone, including sending engineers to San Bernardino. Apple employees attempted to help investigators reconnect the handset to a Wi-Fi network that Farook had used in the past, a move that would allow the data to be available because the phone would automatically back up and move outside Apple’s encryption barriers. But the effort wasn’t possible because the iPhone’s Apple ID password had been reset by a county official after the shooting. San Bernardino County said Saturday on Twitter that the password was reset at the request of the FBI.

Had the password not been changed, Apple said the court battle wouldn’t have been necessary. Apple says its engineers could rewrite its software to circumvent its safeguards, but is refusing because executives believe it would weaken all iPhones. Encryption tools are necessary to protect customer data from hackers and data breaches, executives said.

Prosecutors disagree, and said in Friday’s filing in federal court in Riverside, California, that Apple’s resistance is “based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy.” Clearly frustrated with Apple’s intransigence, the government submitted its demand a week before Apple’s deadline to respond to the judge’s earlier order.

Bigger Issues

The back and forth between the U.S. government and the world’s most valuable company is fueling a larger debate over the need to intrude on people’s privacy in the name of security following the disclosures over U.S. government surveillance made by Edward Snowden. It also raises questions about how far U.S. companies must go to support the work of government authorities.

The government is arguing that “the assistance ordered is not a ‘back door’ or a ‘hack’ to all of Apple’s encryption software.” Citing the urgency of this investigation, the Justice Department said it’s seeking the judge’s ruling because Cook’s letter made it “patently clear” that Apple will fight the earlier order.

All Writs Act

The confrontation shows no signs of a quick ending. Apple faces a Feb. 26 deadline to file its rebuttal to the government’s argument in court, with a hearing scheduled for March 22. Apple and FBI officials have been asked to testify in at least two congressional hearings. Meanwhile, the issue has become fodder among U.S. presidential candidates, with GOP frontrunner Donald Trump calling for a ban on Apple products. The case could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

Apple has previously complied with prosecutors when they had a court order under the All Writs Act, a law that compels third parties to take “non-burdensome” steps to help law enforcement carry out search warrants. Apple’s cooperation changed recently when a judge in Brooklyn, in a case involving the iPhone of an accused drug dealer, questioned whether the government can still rely on that law.

Like many technology companies, Apple provides information about its customers to the government when issued a warrant or subpoena. The files include e-mail, iTunes and App Store purchases, pictures, old text messages and other files stored within iCloud, according to law enforcement guidelines published on the company’s website.

In the Farook case, the data the investigators are after is stored locally on the iPhone -- Apple has already provided the information that was backed up. The government doesn’t have the password and said it can’t keep entering random codes in hopes of eventually breaking in because that would trigger a security feature that automatically erases all of the content on the phone.

The case is: In the Matter of the Search of an Apple iPhone Seized During the Execution of a Search Warrant on a Black Lexus IS300, California License Plate 35KGD203, 16-CM-00010, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Riverside).