DOJ slams Apple for refusing to help unlock San Bernardino shooter's iPhone

A Friday filing alleges that Apple's refusal to comply with this week's court order is a "marketing strategy."

The U.S. Department of Justice is wading into Apple’s battle with the FBI, slamming the company for refusing to comply with a court order to unlock an iPhone 5c used by the shooter in the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

U.S. Attorney Ellen Decker wrote in a Friday court filing in Riverside, Calif. that Apple “has the technical ability to comply” with the court order and is refusing to assist because of “concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy.”

The DOJ disputes some speculation that Apple can’t assist the FBI with its request:

“Apple designs and implements all of the features discussed, writes and cryptographically signs the iOS, routinely patches security or functionality issues in its operating system, and releases new versions of its operating system to address issues. By comparison, writing a program that turns off non-encryption features that Apple was responsible for writing to begin with would not be unduly burdensome. At no point has Apple ever said that it does not have the technical capability to comply with the order, or that the order asks Apple to undertake an unreasonably challenging software development task. On this point, Apple’s silence speaks volumes.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s letter to customers cautions that “building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor” and that there is “no way to guarantee” that it would be “limited to this one case.” The filing disputes that point, too:

“Apple may maintain custody of the software, destroy it after its purpose under the order has been served, refuse to disseminate it outside of Apple, and make clear to the world that it does not apply to other devices or users without lawful court orders.”

Apple did help the FBI obtain information from Farook’s iCloud account, which is unencrypted, but according to the DOJ filing, Farook last backed up his iPhone to the cloud on October 19, 2015, weeks before the shooting.

Decker also said in Friday’s filing that Apple has complied with past government requests as part of the All Writs Act and that other phone manufacturers have complied with similar court orders.

“Until last year, Apple did not dispute any such order,” the filing says.

That’s true, but Apple is now making it clear, both by encrypting iPhone data protected by a password and by refusing to comply with phone unlock requests, that it doesn’t want to be the gatekeeper letting the government in and out of its customers’ devices.

Apple has until February 26 to respond to the court order. A hearing has been set for March 22 in Riverside, California.

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