Apple's New Lawyer Calls iPhone-Unlock Order a ‘Pandora's Box’

FBI vs. Apple: Doesn't the NSA Already Have a Way In?
  • Olson says `hundreds of courts' would issue similar edicts
  • Foreign governments could use precedent to invade privacy

Apple Inc.’s newly hired outside lawyer, in his first remarks on a U.S. court order requiring the company to help unlock the iPhone of a dead terrorist, said the move could imperil the privacy of millions of people around the world.

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Former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, a partner with the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, said on ABC’s “This Week” program that the order would open a “Pandora’s box” of privacy issues.

“This is not just one magistrate in San Bernardino,” said Olson, 75, whose wife died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. “There are hundreds of magistrates, there are hundreds of other courts.” 

In rejecting the magistrate’s decree, Apple has ignited a long-simmering battle between the tech industry and the government pitting concerns over civil liberties against the need for surveillance to fight terrorism. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump waded into the battle last week by urging people to boycott Apple products until it complied.

“This case is entirely overstated,” John Miller, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism, said on “This Week” after Olson’s appearance. “The giant parade of terribles,” as he described Apple’s worries over government breaches of civil liberties, “is absurd.”

On Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym ordered Apple to lend “reasonable technical assistance” to the FBI in recovering information from the phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who teamed up with his wife in December to kill 14 people in San Bernardino, California.

Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook posted a letter on Apple’s website last week saying that the directive would create a dangerous precedent that could ultimately require the company to build software to help governments intercept private e-mails and access private health records.

Federal officials say Apple’s concerns are exaggerated, intended to protect its image and market position rather than customers’ privacy, and that the government is simply seeking help one time to determine whether Farook and his wife had contact with outside terrorist groups such as Islamic State. More broadly, police departments throughout the country have said that the use of increasingly sophisticated encryption by companies such as Apple is stymieing investigators.

Apple previously maintained a master key to the encryption codes used in iPhone software; by showing probable cause and obtaining the necessary search warrant, police could require the company to provide them with access to customer data. But the company announced in September 2014 that the latest version of its operating software, iOS8, would only allow iPhones to be opened by the user’s passcode. Now investigators want Apple to neutralize a software feature that would erase the data on Farook’s phone after 10 unsuccessful attempts are made to put in the correct password.

While Olson has spent most of his career at Gibson Dunn, he served as an assistant U.S. attorney general in the 1980s and was the U.S. solicitor general under President George W. Bush. He also served on the President’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006 to 2008.

“The implications of this are quite serious,” Olson said of the court order. “People in foreign countries are going to be very, very susceptible to invasions of their privacy if Apple can be forced to change its phone.”