Apple, FBI Battle Escalates As Justice Department Demands San Bernardino Terrorist's iPhone Be Unlocked

The Justice Department said Apple’s refusal to help unlock the phone was just a marketing strategy.

02/19/2016 03:17 pm ET | Updated Feb 20, 2016

By Dustin Volz and Julia Edwards

WASHINGTON, Feb 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion on Friday seeking to compel Apple Inc to comply with a judge's order to unlock the encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters, portraying the tech giant's refusal as a "marketing strategy."

In response, a senior Apple executive, speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity, characterized the Justice Department's filing as an effort to argue its case in the media before the company has a chance to respond.

The back and forth escalated a showdown between the Obama administration and Silicon Valley over security and privacy that ignited earlier this week.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is seeking the tech company's help to access shooter Syed Rizwan Farook's phone by disabling some of its passcode protections. The company so far has pushed back and on Thursday won three extra days to respond to the order.

Another senior Apple executive said Congress is the right place for a debate over encryption, not a courtroom.

The executive said Apple was stunned that such a legal request had come from the U.S. government rather than a country with weaker traditions of protecting privacy and civil liberties.

The motion to compel Apple to comply did not carry specific penalties for the company, and the Justice Department declined to comment on what recourse it was willing to seek.

In the order, prosecutors acknowledged that the latest filing was "not legally necessary" sinceApple had not yet responded to the initial order.

The clash between Apple and the Justice Department has driven straight to the heart of a long-running debate over how much law enforcement and intelligence officials should be able to monitor digital communications.

A federal court hearing in California has been scheduled for March 22 in the case, according to Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California.

The Justice Department said its Friday motion was a response to Apple CEO Tim Cook's public statement Wednesday, which included a refusal to "hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers."

"Rather than assist the effort to fully investigate a deadly terrorist attack ... Apple has responded by publicly repudiating that order," prosecutors wrote in the Friday filing.

"Apple's current refusal to comply with the court's order, despite the technical feasibility of doing so, instead appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy," prosecutors said.

 

ID CHANGE POSES HURDLE

The two senior Apple executives said the company had worked hard to help investigators and tried multiple avenues including sending engineers with FBI agents to a WiFi network that would recognize the phone and begin an automatic backup if that had been enabled.

They criticized government officials who reset the Apple identification associated with the phone, which closed off the possibility of recovering information from it through that automatic cloud backup.

The government first disclosed the identification change in a footnote to its filing Friday. The Apple executives said that the reset occurred before Apple was consulted. The Justice Department declined to comment on that contention.

The two sides have been on a collision course since Apple and Alphabet Inc's Google began offering default end-to-end encryption on their devices in 2014, a move prompted in part by the surveillance revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

But the Justice Department struggled to find a compelling case where encryption proved to be an insurmountable hurdle for its investigators until the Dec. 2 shooting rampage by Farook and his wife in San Bernardino, California, which killed 14. Authorities believe the couple was inspired by the Islamic State.

Some technology experts and privacy advocates backing Apple suggest Farook's work phone likely contains little data of value. They have accused the Justice Department of choreographing the case to achieve a broader goal of gaining support for legislation or a legal precedent that would force companies to crack their encryption for investigators.

The case has quickly become a topic in the U.S. presidential race. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump on Friday called for a "boycott" against Apple until the company complied with the court order.

The two Apple executives said they felt in good company, noting that Trump has faulted many other groups and individuals.

The debate will also play out on Capitol Hill. Bipartisan leaders of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee late Friday invited Apple's Cook and FBI Director James Comey to testify at an upcoming hearing on encryption, though a date was not set.

The House Judiciary Committee is also planning an encryption hearing for March and has invited Apple to attend, according to a congressional source.

(Reporting by Julia Edwards and Dustin Volz; Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles, David Ingram in Washington, Dan Levine, Julia Love and Joseph Menn in San Francisco; Editing by Bill Rigby, Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker)

  • 1 Fifth Avenue, New York City
    Seth Wenig/AP Photo
  • From the outside, this Apple Store, located in Manhattan's GM Plaza, looks like a giant glass cube. Inside, a spiral staircase takes customers to an underground store. It opened in 2006.
  • 2 Regent Street, London, England
    Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images
  • This location opened in 2004 in an Edwardian Period building that once housed the Thomas Cook Travel Agency. The bright lights inside the store offer a warm contrast to the dreary, grey English weather outside. In 2015, the store temporarily closed to undergo renovations that would let in more natural light from outside.
  • 3 Grand Central Terminal, New York City
    Mario Tama via Getty Images
  • The Apple Store inside Grand Central opened in 2011. It is situated on the terminal's east and northeast balconies, which overlook the bustling main concourse of the station.
  • 4 West Lake, Hangzhou, China
    Apple
  • This location opened its doors in 2015. At the time, it was the largest Apple Store in Asia. It's located on West Lake, or Xihu, a historic body of water that has inspired artists for centuries. Apple's minimalist store here boasts ceilings almost 50 feet high and has no visible support columns. The vertical panels in its glass façade reach from the ground to the ceiling with no interruptions, and the interior's second level appears to float freely over the ground floor.
  • 5 International Financial Center, Shanghai, China
    Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images
  • This store, which opened in 2010, features the now-iconic glass cylindrical structure for which Apple won a patent in 2013. The cylinder houses a glass spiral staircase leading down to the retail floor and is meant to create an "ethereal feeling." 
  • 6 Central district, Hong Kong
    Apple
  • Hong Kong's first Apple Store opened its doors in 2011. The space connects two wings of the International Financial Center shopping mall and features a glass spiral staircase. There's even an area designed specially for kids.
  • 7 Carrousel du Louvre, Paris, France
    Thibault Camus/AP Photo
  • When it opened in 2009, this was France's first Apple Store. Sitting in an underground shopping mall beneath the historic Louvre Museum, its entrance faces the iconic Inverted Pyramid skylight. 
  • 8 Kufurstendamm Avenue, Berlin, Germany
    Apple
  • A renovated, century-old theater building houses this store, which opened its doors in 2013. It features a classical Greek revival façade with Ionic columns and tall windows. As an homage to the building's history, the top floors sport red-carpeted stairs, chandeliers and a theater for concerts.
  • 9 Taikoo Li Sanlitun, Beijing, China
    Apple
  • This store opened in 2012 in Sanlitun, a popular outdoor shopping mall designed to be an urban open space that employs a variety of shapes and textures. The Apple Store has a glass façade that spans three sides of the building, and the company's logo is projected on a block that sits astride the store and another building in the mall. 
  • 10 Wangfujing district, Beijing, China
    Feng Li/Getty Images
  • This Apple Store opened in 2012. The surrounding area is an outdoor food and night market that has been around for over 800 years. The store boasts Asia's first three-story glass spiral staircase and has two 360-degree Genius Bars, according to The Next Web.
  • 11 Upper East Side, New York City
    Mark Lennihan/AP
  • Located in a 1920s beaux-arts building that used to be a bank, this Apple Store opened in 2015. It features an old bank vault that's been remodeled into an Apple Watch Edition fitting room, where VIP shoppers can try on the gold device. Apple also restored the outside of the building to look like it did in the '20s.

CONVERSATIONS