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Apple Digs In Against F.B.I. Before Judge Hears iPhone Case

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Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive. The Justice Department has claimed that Apple’s inability to get into phones has created a system tailor-made for criminals. Credit Robert Galbraith/Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple on Tuesday emphasized its opposition to a court order requiring it to help unlock an iPhone for law enforcement purposes, saying the government’s “methods for achieving its objectives are contrary to the rule of law, the democratic process, and the rights of the American people.”

The issue cannot be weighed without taking into account the larger national debate over data privacy concerns, Apple said in a new court filing.

“The Justice Department and F.B.I. argue that this court must decide this issue in a vacuum,” Apple said in the legal brief. “The court not only can consider this broader context, it must do so.”

The filing came in a case that has pitted Apple against the United States government. Apple has been ordered to help break into the iPhone used by one of the attackers in the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting last year, as part of an F.B.I. investigation. Apple has refused to comply with the order.

The brief on Tuesday is the company’s last before the case is heard on March 22 by Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the Federal District Court for the Central District of California.

“This case hinges on a contentious policy issue about how society should weigh what law enforcement officials want against the widespread repercussions and serious risks their demands would create,” Apple said in the filing on Tuesday, which was a reply to the government’s brief in the case last week.

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The technology company has been locked in a major legal battle against law enforcement officials over privacy and security.

Apple’s latest court filing reiterates points that it made last month when it asked the court to drop its order, claiming that the request 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.”

The filing emphasized the constitutional arguments that Apple has made, specifically that the court order violates the company’s constitutional right to free speech and subjects it to “arbitrary deprivation” of its liberty by the government.

The filing was less fiery than the brief filed last Thursday by the Justice Department, which suggested Apple was refusing to comply with the government while secretly carrying out a different, special relationship with China. Apple’s general counsel, Bruce Sewell, has said that the accusations were baseless and cited unnamed sources.

“Everyone should beware,” Mr. Sewell told reporters last week, “because it seems that disagreeing with the Department of Justice means you must be evil and un-American.”

Rebutting the Justice Department’s charges about its special relations with China, a senior Apple software engineer, Craig Federighi, said in a declaration filed by the company Tuesday that “Apple uses the same security protocols everywhere in the world. Apple has never made user data, whether stored on the iPhone or in iCloud, more technologically accessible to any country’s government. We believe any such access is too dangerous to allow.”

The public spat has drawn worldwide attention. For the past few weeks, the two sides have stumped for their positions before Congress and in the court of public opinion. Apple has argued that the order could have grave consequences for digital security and privacy. The Justice Department has said Apple’s inability to get into phones has created a system tailor-made for criminals. Both sides have asked Congress to decide under what circumstances the government can see private customer data.

Any decision by Judge Pym is likely to be appealed and could make it to the Supreme Court, which has issued a mixed set of rulings in recent years regarding the scope of the government’s powers to collect evidence.

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