Apple: FBI could force us to turn on iPhone cameras, microphones

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A top Apple executive is warning the FBI could force the company to turn on users' cameras and microphones to spy on them if it prevails in the court fight over the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone.

“Someday they will want [Apple] to turn on [a user’s] camera or microphone. We can’t do that now, but what if we’re forced to do that?” Apple senior vice president of Internet software and services Eddy Cue said to Univision.

“Where will this stop? In a divorce case? In an immigration case? In a tax case? Some day, someone will be able to turn on a phone’s microphone. That should not happen in this country,” he continued, according to The Guardian.

Apple is opposing the controversial court order demanding that it write software that would allow the FBI to hack into an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who with his wife massacred 14 people last year in San Bernardino, Calif.

Cue’s comments echo warnings from Apple CEO Tim Cook, who said that if the government succeeds in the San Bernardino case, “it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data.”

“The government could extend this breach of privacy and 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,” Cook argued in an open letter to customers published shortly after the court order was filed.

The court battle has become a touchstone in a larger debate over government access to encrypted data.

The FBI and law enforcement officials warn that criminals and terrorists are increasing using encryption to hide their communications from authorities. They have pushed for some type of guaranteed access to these communications.

But the tech community and privacy advocates have resisted such calls, arguing that ensuring access weakens global security and threatens online privacy.

Although the Justice Department has repeatedly insisted that the ramifications of the case are tailored to the phone in question, critics argue the outcome will set an important precedent that will impact encryption policy.

At issue is the government's attempt to use an 18th century law called the All Writs Act to compel Apple to disable the security feature. The 1789 law allows federal judges to compel others to help the government perform its duties so long as requests are not "unduly burdensome.”

Apple argues that forcing it to create a piece of software that doesn't already exist and which it considers harmful would inappropriately broaden the scope of the law.

Arguments that a victory by the government would set a "dangerous precedent," as Cook says, have gained support on Capitol Hill.

“I don’t see a limiting principle — if that argument is accepted by the court in this case, won’t it lead district attorneys and other prosecutors around the country to essentially make the same argument in their cases?” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffOPM, not an outside contractor, discovered massive breach Clinton’s email troubles deepen House passes policy bill for intelligence agencies MORE (D-Calif.) asked FBI Director James Comey in a recent House Intelligence Committee hearing.

“While the result may only affect this phone, the precedent may be there for many others,” the committee's ranking member added.