Digital Rights Groups Join Apple’s iPhone Fight With FBI

  • Access Now, Wickr Foundation cite concern about human rights
  • Tech superpowers expected to weigh in as court deadline looms

Why 35 Tech Firms Are Backing Apple in Encryption Debate

Apple Inc.’s fight against a judge’s order to unlock the iPhone of a dead terrorist drew support from a trio of advocacy groups that say the case sets a dangerous precedent for privacy.

Access Now and Wickr Foundation, which advocate for digital rights, sought permission Wednesday to submit friend-of-the-court filings, saying they’re concerned about “the impact that the intentional weakening of digital security would have on global human rights.” Separately, the American Civil Liberties Union weighed in to say that the government’s effort to compel Apple to help its investigation raises important “constitutional questions regarding the limits of law enforcement authority.”

QuickTake Apple

The filings mark the start of what will be a deluge of court pleadings, including by tech superpowers Google, Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp., over whether Apple can be forced to unlock an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who died in a shootout with law enforcement in San Bernardino, California, on Dec. 2 following an attack that killed 14 people.

The briefs, if accepted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym, are to help her decide whether she should uphold her Feb. 16 order that Apple has to help the FBI unlock Farook’s phone. Pym set a deadline of Thursday at the end of the day for filings.

Apple vs. FBI: Balancing Privacy Against Security

Courts routinely consider so-called amici curiae filings to decide lawsuits that, as in the iPhone case, involve broader public interests or question how existing law should be applied to new technologies.

‘Critical Importance’

“The disposition of this case is of critical importance to Americans’ privacy and cybersecurity because the government seeks to compel a technology company to create software designed to weaken the security of its own devices,” the ACLU said in Wednesday’s filing, echoing arguments Apple itself has made.

Further support for Apple was filed by the App Association, an advocacy group for more than 5,000 small and midsize application developers and technology firms. It said the government’s position may set a precedent that could badly damage the app economy.

“The Department of Justice continues to claim this is just about one phone, one specific case, and one company, but it still isn’t true,” Morgan Reed, the group’s executive director, said in a statement about its friend-of-the-court filing. “What the government is demanding would undermine security and privacy practices across the board and would have a devastating impact on the entire industry.”

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a brief by Google, among others, before issuing a split decision that Los Angeles police can’t check hotel registration records without a search warrant. A year earlier, the high court weighed a brief by the Electronic Privacy Information Center before ruling that police can’t search cell phone data without a search warrant.

Brooklyn Magistrate

Apple argues, and has found support from a magistrate judge in Brooklyn, that the Justice Department lacks authority to force the company to hack into its phones because the U.S. Congress has considered giving law enforcement that power and has so far declined to grant it.

That judge last year declined a request by the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation to file a brief, saying that it was unnecessary because, even if they may have had “a fresh perspective on a broader policy debate,” the question before him was a narrow legal issue.

Among the groups that are expected to have their voices heard in the Riverside case are the surviving victims of the San Bernardino shooting, police and district attorney associations, as well as EFF and Amnesty International.

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, 16-00010, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Riverside).

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