The fight over encryption between Apple and the US government is continuing to heat up with the Department of Justice filing a motion with the court to compel Apple’s cooperation. This is yet another example of the vicious back and forth behind the scenes leaking out for all to see. The DOJ admits that this motion wasn’t technically necessary, but is a response to Apple CEO Tim Cook’s public statement.
In case you’re not up to speed on this legal mess, a US court ordered Apple last week to provide the FBI with a method to unlock an encrypted iPhone belonging to San Bernardino mass shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. The security settings of the iPhone will wipe user data after 10 incorrect PIN unlock attempts, so the FBI wants Apple to use its internal tools to deactivate that limit or allow access to the data in some other way.
In Cook’s statement on Apple’s decision not to comply with the order, he points out that creating such software would provide law enforcement (and anyone else who got their hands on it) with the ability to unlock any iPhone, not just the one belonging to Farook. Apple has not officially responded to the original order in the courts, though. That makes this preemptive strike by the DOJ, in which it characterizes Apple’s refusal as nothing more than a “marketing strategy,” all the more unusual.
An Apple executive says this move by the DOJ is simply an attempt to argue its case in the court of public opinion, Reuters reports — ironic when you consider that’s essentially what the DOJ is accusing Apple of doing. Another Apple exec said Congress should be taking up the issue, not the courts.
The case is currently scheduled for a March 22nd hearing, where Apple will state its intention to fight the order. The DOJ would like to have Apple compelled to comply immediately while the case continues. The new filing also explicitly says that the DOJ believes Apple is capable of unlocking the shooter’s iPhone, something that was not clear until now.
Apple has also noted that it attempted to help the FBI with the initial investigation by accessing the data on Farook’s iPhone in conventional ways. For example, if it’s on a trusted Wi-Fi network, the iPhone can automatically back up its data, allowing it to be intercepted. However, the new filing reveals that the FBI made this impossible when it asked the city of San Bernardino to reset the Apple ID associated with the phone (it was Farook’s work device). This prevents the phone from backing up its data until authenticated with the unlock PIN. Some might even suggest this was an intentional move to set up the tussle over encryption, which the DOJ hopes it can win and use to set a precedent.
We can expect a lot more public argument over the role of encryption before this case is resolved. Many other technology firms are backing Apple, which could set up a monumental legal battle.
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