'Dangerous power': Apple tells court to vacate iPhone hack order

© Brendan McDermid
Apple has asked the court to reverse its order compelling the company to help the FBI hack an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists. The motion argues the Justice Department and the FBI are seeking “a dangerous power.”

“This is not a case about one isolated iPhone,” Apple wrote in the motion filed in the US District Court for the Central District of California on Thursday, the latest salvo in a court battle that between national security and digital privacy.

"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,” the Cupertino-based company argued.

Apple has said it wants to cooperate with law enforcement, but creating a backdoor that would allow the FBI to unlock the iPhone of Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters, would threaten the security of all its customers.

“The government says: ‘Just this once’ and ‘Just this phone.’ But the government knows those statements are not true,” lawyers for Apple wrote in the motion submitted to Magistrate Sheri Pym.

Apple argued a backdoor would “make its users’ most confidential and personal information vulnerable to hackers, identity thieves, hostile foreign agents, and unwarranted government surveillance.” The government itself fell prey to foreign hackers, who breached Office of Personnel Management databases and gained access to personnel records affecting over 22 million current and formal federal workers, the company noted.

“The court should vacate the order and deny the government’s motion to compel,” wrote Apple in its motion.

The specialized software the government wants Apple to build “simply does not exist today” and would require “significant resources” including the work of six to 10 engineers working two to four weeks.

Last week, the FBI asked the judge to order Apple to comply, invoking a 227 year-old law that established the US federal justice system and granted federal judges the power to issue orders to other courts.

“The All Writs Act, first enacted in 1789 and on which the government bases its entire case, ‘does not give the district court a roving commission’ to conscript and commandeer Apple in this manner…no court has ever authorized what the government now seeks, no law supports such unlimited and sweeping use of the judicial process, and the Constitution forbids it,” wrote the company.

If the court supports the FBI’s expanded definition of the All Writs Act, it could lead to disastrous repercussions, Apple argued.

[If] Apple can be forced to write code in this case to bypass security features and create new accessibility, what is to stop the government from demanding that Apple write code to turn on the microphone in aid of government surveillance, activate the video camera, surreptitiously record conversations, or turn on location services to tracked the phone’s user. Nothing,” the motion said.

Apple further accuses the government of working in a closed courtroom by invoking a terrorism investigation and trying “to cut off debate and circumvent thoughtful analysis.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook has stated that the company is prepared to take the fight all the way to the Supreme Court if need be. The controversy has divided Silicon Valley, with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg taking Apple’s side while Microsoft founder Bill Gates has backed the government.

A court hearing is scheduled for next month.