FBI, Apple ratchet up rhetoric

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Apple and law enforcement officials are ratcheting up the tone in their legal battle over a locked terrorist’s iPhone, with both sides preparing to dig in for a long fight.

For several weeks, Apple and the FBI took care to publicly say they respected the other’s views.

{mosads}“There are no demons in this debate,” FBI Director James Comey said at a House hearing earlier this month, only “a whole lot of people who see the world through different lenses.”

Now the gloves are coming off.

In a Thursday court filing, the Justice Department bashed Apple’s reliance on privacy concerns as “false,” “corrosive” rhetoric that undermines the Constitution.

It said Apple’s decision to refuse the court order was a “marketing decision” intended to court favor with consumers.

Apple fired back by accusing the government of fear-mongering.

“Everyone should beware, because it seems like disagreeing with the Department of Justice means you must be evil and anti-American,” Bruce Sewell, Apple’s general counsel and senior vice president, told reporters.

The harsh tone could threaten the already tenuous relationship between the Obama administration and Silicon Valley, a key constituency with whom White House has had to walk a tightrope since government leaker Edward Snowden exposed a slate of secret spying programs that angered major tech firms.

Various agencies have opened up dedicated Silicon Valley offices in the last year, and tech leaders are routinely called in to help the administration counter extremist rhetoric online, improve government systems and beef up the nation’s cyber defenses.

But the escalation of the Apple-FBI feud could endanger these long-term bridge building efforts.

Apple and the FBI are fighting over a court order directing the tech giant to create software that would unlock the work phone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of two shooters who killed 14 people late last year in San Bernardino, Calif.

The software would disable a failsafe measure that wipes an iPhone clean if an incorrect password is entered 10 times.

Two other personal phones used by Farook and his wife in the November attack were completely destroyed.

Apple has argued the FBI’s demands are unconstitutional. The government cannot force a private company to create software to undermine its own security, the tech giant says.

The company also insists that the government is trying to build a “backdoor” into its security, setting a precedent that could be used for any type of case in the future —including turning on iPhone cameras and microphones for suspected immigration or tax law violators.

The FBI maintains that its demand is isolated to this specific iPhone. Apple has complied with dozens of similar — but not identical — cases in the past, government lawyers point out. So this case should be no different.

The FBI has already been accused of intentionally choosing the emotionally charged case in San Bernardino — the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 — to make its argument for greater law enforcement access to locked data.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the tech and privacy community’s strongest Capitol Hill allies, said the bellicose back-and-forth was typical of the early stages of many surveillance and civil liberties battles he’s fought in Congress.

“I have always thought in these kinds of times that it’s a challenge to get people to look at what is really at issue,” he told The Hill this week.

The heated, reductive rhetoric will eventually dissipate, Wyden predicted.

“To me this is increasingly going to get into the details,” he said. “It’s increasingly not going to be as partisan and it’s not going to be as simplified as saying, ‘Oh the government wants to protect us from bad people … and the other side just wants to sell stuff, or cares about dead terrorists.’”


Tags Apple FBI Ron Wyden

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