A contentious battle between the Justice Department and Apple is showing no sign of slowing down, with a court hearing scheduled for March in a case pitting national security interests against privacy concerns and nationwide rallies in support of the tech company set for Tuesday.
The Justice Department has escalated the standoff, saying the tech giant’s resistance to a court order that would force it to unlock an iPhone for law enforcement is based on concern for its “reputation and marketing strategy.”
Justice attorneys made the accusation in a motion filed Friday to compel Apple to immediately comply with an earlier court order that has to do with the cellphone that belonged to deceased gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. Investigators are seeking access to data on the phone to piece together more information about the Dec. 2 terrorist attack that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California.
In the motion, attorneys deconstructed concerns that Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed about the court order in an open letter published on the company’s website, noting that the company “did not assert that it lacks the technical capability to execute the Order, that it is not essential to gaining access into the iPhone, or that it would be too time- or labor-intensive.”
Instead, it noted that Apple’s opposition stems from “a perceived negative impact on its reputation and marketing strategy were it to provide the ordered assistance to the government.”
Apple has indicated that it will challenge the ruling, which would require the tech company to provide technical assistance to the FBI so that agents could attempt to break the four-digit password that protects the work-issued cellphone belonging to Farook.
Apple has not formally responded to the government’s motion but has until Friday to do so. A series of deadlines for each of the parties to submit legal briefs is set for the next month, providing a steady timeline for the next round of jabs by each side.
A hearing on the case is scheduled for March 22 before Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.
Mr. Cook’s letter is the only written response Apple has authored in objection to the ruling and serves as the best outline of the company’s points of contention.
“The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals,” Mr. Cook wrote. “The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices.”
The ruling would force Apple to create a way to bypass a security feature that wipes all data from the iPhone after the password is entered incorrectly too many times. With that feature suspended, investigators could then attempt to enter all four-digit password combinations until they find the right one to unlock the phone.
Apple has until Friday to file an application for relief from the order. On Tuesday, Apple supporters are expected to demonstrate outside stores across the country and in front of the FBI’s headquarters in Washington.
“People are rallying at Apple stores because what the FBI is demanding here will make all of us less safe, not more safe,” said Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, the group organizing the demonstrations.