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Apple opposes order to unlock San Bernardino shooter's iPhone

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 - 18:03
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Apple Inc rejected a court order to help the Justice Department unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in a terrorist attack in California, accusing the US government of "overreach" that will set a dangerous precedent.

[WASHINGTON] Apple Inc rejected a court order to help the Justice Department unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in a terrorist attack in California, accusing the US government of "overreach" that will set a dangerous precedent.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation sought a new version of Apple's operating system, software that doesn't currently exist, to circumvent security features, Chief executive officer Tim Cook said in a letter published on Apple's website. Apple, which like its peers has opposed calls to build so-called backdoors, said the broader implications of the order needed to be better understood.

Federal investigators haven't been able to unlock the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, who carried out a Dec 2 shooting in San Bernardino that killed 14 people at a holiday party, the government said in a filing in federal court in Riverside, California. US Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym on Tuesday ordered Apple to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to the FBI to recover information from the phone.

"While we believe the FBI's intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products," Mr Cook wrote. "Ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect."

The request highlights the mounting tension between the government and technology companies over access to encrypted content. Companies including Apple have resisted pleas from law enforcement for wider access, worried about angering customers by exposing their private data.

US national security officials say encrypted communications thwart investigations of crimes and terrorism.

Judge Pym gave Apple five business days to respond if it believes complying with the order would be "unreasonably burdensome". The growing use of encryption is "overwhelmingly affecting law enforcement" when companies don't cooperate or sell equipment that can't be penetrated by investigators, FBI Director James Comey told the Senate intelligence committee in a Feb 9 hearing.

"It is a big problem for law enforcement armed with a search warrant when you find a device that can't be opened, even though the judge said there's probable cause to open it," Mr Comey said.

The case is significant because it shows a side of the encryption debate that is seldom discussed. Despite complaints from law enforcement and intelligence officials that encryption makes certain data off limits, agencies have workarounds for some of the most important cases.

Farook was using an iPhone 5c owned by the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health with an iOS 9 operating system. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29, were killed in a gun battle with police after the attack on his co-workers.

The Justice Department wants Apple to provide customized software that will prevent the data on the phone from being deleted after 10 attempts to input the passcode. The software also must enable agents to send electronic passcodes to the phone, rather than manually typing them in, according to the application.

The software would allow agents to automatically enter multiple passcodes to get around the encryption standards. Mr Cook likened the federal order to creating a "master key" that could be used to unlock any number of other iPhones in use around the globe.

Apple said it has provided help in the San Bernadino case, including providing data in its possession and offering ideas to investigators.

"While the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control," Mr Cook said.

Apple has the ability to modify software that is created to only function within the subject device, prosecutors said in the application for the order. Apple controls the hardware and software that is used to turn on and run its phone, they said.

Los Angeles US Attorney Eileen Decker said federal investigators have "worked tirelessly to exhaust every investigative lead" related to the terrorist attack.

"The application filed today in federal court is another step - a potentially important step - in the process of learning everything we possibly can about the attack in San Bernardino," Ms Decker said in a statement.

BLOOMBERG