Privacy groups line up behind Apple in FBI feud

Getty Images

Digital rights groups on Wednesday filed a series of briefs urging a federal judge to reject an FBI court order directing Apple to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Apple last week asked a judge to vacate the order, arguing the request sets a dangerous precedent that would allow the government to force companies to hack their own secure devices.

ADVERTISEMENT
This stance was backed on Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Access Now and the Wickr Foundation, all privacy advocates.

The trio filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting Apple to the judge in the case.

“This case is not about a single phone — it’s about the government’s authority to turn the tech companies against their users,” said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

“If the government succeeds in forcing the companies to exploit their users’ trust, it will have set back digital privacy and security in this country by decades,” he added.

The order asks Apple to create software that would disable a failsafe that wipes the phone’s memory if an incorrect password is implemented 10 times consecutively.

The FBI insists such a request is narrow, and would not introduce a widespread vulnerability into Apple’s products.

But Apple — backed up by privacy advocates and technologists — say even the one-time software amounts to a “backdoor” that hackers could use to crack all iPhones. It would be akin, they say, to forcing Apple to acting as an arm of law enforcement.

“Law enforcement may not commandeer innocent third parties into becoming its undercover agents, its spies, or its hackers," the ACLU brief reads.

Complying also sets a precedent that threatens all encrypted devices, and thus human rights, Apple supporters argue.

“Encryption is vital to the safety of activists, journalists, and all other users around the world, protecting their most personal information from being compromised and used against them,” said Amie Stepanovich, U.S. policy manager at Access Now.

“In the most extreme cases, the strength of the encryption is actually a matter of life and death,” she added.

Major tech companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter and Facebook have all also pledged to file briefs on Apple's behalf.

In its legal filings, Apple has has relied on both First Amendment and Fifth Amendment arguments to protest the order.

The government is leaning on the 1789 All Writs Act, which allows federal judges to compel others to help the government perform its duties so long as requests are not “unduly burdensome.”