Apple filed a motion Thursday to vacate a California federal court order demanding that the company unlock an iPhone used by a shooter in the San Bernardino killings. The company asserts that to comply with the court-ordered request, Apple would be required to create an entirely new operating system, with a backdoor that would expose all of its customers to US surveillance.
"This is not a case about one isolated iPhone. Rather, this case is about the Department of Justice and the FBI seeking through the courts a dangerous power that Congress and the American people have withheld: the ability to force companies like Apple to undermine the basic security and privacy interests of hundreds of millions of individuals around the globe," Apple's attorneys wrote in the filing.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has termed iPhone-cracking software, demanded of Apple by the federal government, without compensation, the "equivalent of cancer." According to court records unsealed this week, over the past five months, the tech company has received over 15 requests by the FBI to unlock iPhones, as privacy activists warn of a "dangerous precedent."
Apple argues that their software code is "protected speech" and that there is no existing judicial precedent to compel the company to cooperate with a government request to forfeit or alter existing code. Apple asserts that the government fear-mongering is akin to McCarthyism, and that by "invoking terrorism, the government seeks to cut off debate and circumvent thoughtful analysis."
The Apple CEO stated in an interview this week that, "I think the safety of the public is incredibly important – safety of our kids, safety of our family," but, he argued, data security provides a sufficiently compelling countervailing interest. "The protection of people’s data is also incredibly important, and so there is a trade-off here, knowing that doing this could expose people to incredible vulnerabilities."
These heightened vulnerabilities, if the company were to comply with the FBI demands, include not only a heightened likelihood of government intrusion, but also the risk of personal data falling into the hands of cybercriminals.
The showdown continues, with security hawks and privacy watchdogs closely observing to see whether the American judicial system will uphold basic constitutional protections, or submit to fearful terrorist rhetoric.