Home / Technology / Apple Goes to Court, and F.B.I. Presses Congress to Settle iPhone Privacy Fight

Apple Goes to Court, and F.B.I. Presses Congress to Settle iPhone Privacy Fight

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Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, wrote in a letter to customers last week that he opposed the court order as an intrusion into customers’ privacy. Credit Monica Davey/European Pressphoto Agency

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple on Thursday filed its formal opposition to the federal court order requiring it to help law enforcement officials break into an iPhone, setting the stage for more legal wrangling in a case that has pitted the world’s most valuable company against the United States government.

In its brief, filed in federal court in California, Apple said that the court should drop an order issued last week that essentially asked the company to create a tool that law enforcement agents can use to break into an iPhone.

“Apple strongly supports, and will continue to support, the efforts of law enforcement in pursuing justice against terrorists and other criminals — just as it has in this case and many others,” the company said in its motion. “But the unprecedented order requested by the government finds no support in the law and would violate the Constitution.”

Apple added that the order had broad implications that would “inflict significant harm — to civil liberties, society and national security — and would pre-empt decisions that should be left to the will of the people through laws passed by Congress and signed by the president.”

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In its filing, called a motion to vacate, Apple said that the court order not only was at odds with existing law, but also violated the company’s First and Fifth Amendment rights.

Specifically, the company argued that a 1789 statute known as the All Writs Act, which the government has used in the past to request user data from Apple, does not give the court the power that it seeks in this case. While the F.B.I. has used All Writs in the past to obtain information from Apple, the company said in its filing that “Congress has never authorized judges to compel innocent third parties to provide decryption services to the F.B.I.”

The company also argued that if the government forced it to create code, that would amount to “compelled speech and viewpoint discrimination,” both of which are violations of the First Amendment right to free speech. “Under well-settled law, computer code is treated as speech within the meaning of the First Amendment,” the company said in its motion.

Apple also argued that last week’s court order violated the company’s Fifth Amendment right to due process because it deprives Apple’s right to be free from “arbitrary deprivation of [its] liberty by government.”

Apple’s brief was filed a day ahead of a Friday deadline for the company to respond to the court order issued on Feb. 16 by Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the Federal District Court for the Central District of California.

The judge said Apple was required to weaken its security functions so the United States government could unlock the iPhone of one of the gunmen in a mass shooting in December in San Bernardino, Calif., to help the investigation.

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A senior Apple official said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday that the company filed early because of the strong interest in this case. She reiterated statements made by other Apple executives that the company had gone above and beyond what was required by law to support the government in its investigation.

Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, posted a personally signed letter to customers last week in which he said he opposed the order as an intrusion into customers’ privacy. The Justice Department shot back with a sharply worded 25-page motion demanding that Apple cooperate with the order, writing that the company’s refusal “appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy.”

On Sunday, James B. Comey Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, released a statement defending the agency’s need to break into the iPhone, saying the order “isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice.”

The fight between Apple and law enforcement is an important moment in the growing tension between tech companies that have access to huge amounts of private customer data and the government, which has long sought greater access to that information. Apple has said customer data must remain accessible only to customers to protect their civil liberties. Law enforcement officials like Mr. Comey say that increasingly robust encryption technology is hurting their ability to fight criminals.

Justice Department officials say the case offers them a near-perfect set of circumstances to challenge Apple’s position in court and force its hand: Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino attackers, is dead, and the iPhone was owned by San Bernardino, not Mr. Farook. The shooting was the worst terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Cook said during an interview with ABC News this week that the minutiae of his company’s legal strategy was not his primary focus. “My primary focus is, as I’ve said before, is on the customers that would then be vulnerable and the trampling on civil liberties,” he said.

When asked if he would be willing to take the case as far as the Supreme Court, Mr. Cook said, “We would be prepared to take this issue all the way.”

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