DOJ files motion to force Apple to unlock iPhone

Getty Images

The Justice Department filed a motion on Friday to force Apple to comply with a court order demanding it help crack into an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Apple earlier this week refused to comply with the court order, filed by a California judge, which demands the tech giant disable certain security features to allow FBI hackers to unlock the phone.

The DOJ on Friday dinged Apple for refusing to "assist the effort to investigate" the December attack, which killed 14, and pushed back on the company's characterization of the request as a “back door” t o every iPhone.

"The Order does not, as Apple's public statement alleges, require Apple to create or provide a 'backdoor' to every iPhone,” the motion reads.

The original court order doesn't directly demand that Apple decrypt the device, a government-owned iPhone 5c used by Syed Rizwan Farook for his job at the county health department.

Instead, the order asks Apple to create software that would disable a failsafe that erases the phone's memory if an incorrect password is entered 10 times in a row. Disabling that would allow FBI hackers to test an infinite number of password combinations until they hit on the correct one.

Apple — backed by technologists and privacy advocates — argues that deliberately building an insecure version of its operating system would jeopardize the security of all iPhones.

“The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said on Wednesday. “They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.

“In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession,” he added.

Cook also warned that complying would set a dangerous precedent for personal privacy, effectively broadening the FBI’s authority.

Eventually, he insisted, authorities would be able to demand that Apple build surveillance software to “intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”

The government has argued that the access it is requesting is limited to Farook’s phone, a claim the DOJ stressed on Friday.

“[The court order] does not provide 'hackers and criminals' access to iPhones; it does not require Apple to 'hack (its) own phones; it does not give the government 'the power to reach into anyone's device' without a warrant or court authorization; and it does not compromise the security of personal information,” the motion reads.

The legal fight has only intensified the debate between law enforcement and tech companies over encryption. Both Apple and the DOJ appear to be digging in for what could be a long fight, with some observers speculating that the battle could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

This story was updated at 3:08 p.m.