Apple Asks Court to Drop Order to Unlock iPhone

Apple on Thursday filed a motion to vacate a court order mandating it assist the FBI in unlocking an iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino shooter.

It took Apple nine words to make its point: “This is not a case about one isolated iPhone.”

Apple on Thursday filed a motion to vacate a court order mandating it assist the FBI in unlocking an iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino shooter. Apple said the order violates its First Amendment rights—software code is considered a form of free speech—and reiterates points made by its CEO Tim Cook that the FBI and the U.S. government would not stop at demanding access to just Syed Farook’s iPhone 5c.

“In short, the government wants to compel Apple to create a crippled and insecure product,” Apple attorneys wrote. “Once the process is created, it provides an avenue for criminals and foreign agents to access millions of iPhones. And once developed for our government, it is only a matter of time before foreign governments demand the same tool.”

Apple was given until today to respond to a federal magistrate’s order of Feb. 16 that it build a one-off version of iOS that would bypass security mechanisms protecting the shooter’s 5c. The FBI asked for the ability to have a computer guess the phone’s passcode. Currently, security on the device requires manually entered guesses and inserts an escalating time lag between incorrect guesses before eventually wiping the phone after 10 failed tries.

The court order asked Apple to build new firmware that would disable those protections, and insists this is a one-time request.

Earlier this week, however, Apple attorney Marc J. Zwillinger unsealed a document that showed a dozen similar requests from law enforcement to Apple asking for help in unlocking suspects’ iPhones or iPads. The document was filed in an effort to show undue burden placed on Apple by the federal magistrate’s order.

Apple called the FBI’s request a backdoor and said in Thursday’s motion that the new firmware is “too dangerous to build.”

“If this order is permitted to stand, it will only be a matter of days before some other prosecutor, in some other important case, before some other judge, seeks a similar order using this case as precedent,” Apple’s attorney’s wrote in the motion. “Once the floodgates open, they cannot be closed, and the device security that Apple has worked so tirelessly to achieve will be unwound without so much as a congressional vote.”

Apple also made the case that the backdoor introduces a vulnerability that could be exploited not just by law enforcement but also by criminals. It also pointed out that even if the requested firmware could be limited to just domestic terrorism cases, that criminals would seek to encrypt communication developed outside the U.S. that could not be “conscripted” by the U.S. government.

The pretext for the original court order is the All Writs Act of 1789, which Cook said earlier this week opens the door to a dangerous expansion of the FBI’s authority. Apple’s attorneys reiterated this point in Thursday’s motion:

“Given the government’s boundless interpretation of the All Writs Act, it is hard to conceive of any limits on the orders the government could obtain in the future,” they wrote. “For example, 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 track the phone’s user? Nothing.”

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