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DOJ Lays Out Its Legal Case For Why Apple Should Help Crack An iPhone

The Apple logo is illuminated in the entrance to the Fifth Avenue Apple store in New York City. The company has until Feb. 26 to respond to the Justice Department's motion and an earlier court order.

The Department of Justice has filed a motion to compel Apple to cooperate with a government investigation and help access data on an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino assailants.

The motion filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California (read it in full below) lays out the government's legal case for why Apple should provide technical assistance.

It could be viewed as a response to Apple's open letter this week stating why the company is refusing to assist — as well as a pre-emptive move by the prosecutors ahead of Apple's own court filings expected next week.

(Click here for our comprehensive explainer on what's going on, and here for other NPR coverage on the standoff so far. As a very quick recap: The government had earlier gotten a court order directing Apple to create special software that would help investigators crack the phone's PIN code. Apple CEO Tim Cook's letter argued this would set a dangerous precedent and could undermine the security of all iPhones.)

In the new motion, U.S. attorneys argue that Apple "retains the technical ability to comply" with the judge's order and that its "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."

The filing specifies that the government "has reason to believe" that Syed Rizwan Farook used that iPhone to communicate "with some of the very people" he and his wife killed in the Dec. 2 mass shooting.

The tech industry, however, broadly views this as a precedent-setting case. For instance, experts' opinions vary on whether the government truly does require Apple's help to crack into the phone. (The filing argues that Apple's help is critical.) Google, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter have issued statements in support of Apple's opposition.

One of the biggest points of contention is whether this is a matter of writing software so carefully targeted to this individual phone that it wouldn't ever be usable to break into other phones. There's a lot we don't know about the way iPhone security technology works, and technical experts disagree on the feasibility of this task.

Apple itself, in simplest terms, doesn't want such software to exist to begin with. Cook suggested that software written specifically for one phone could be in danger of being tweaked to apply to other phones, via other government requests or by hackers.

Government attorneys argue that such a threat is overstated. "The software never has to come into the government's custody," the filing says. "Just as with Apple's already-existing operating systems and software, no one outside Apple would have access to the software required by the order unless Apple itself chose to share it."

Both parties and the judge have also agreed on a timeline for this case, which many observers think could become a landmark in the long-running debate over privacy and surveillance.

  • Apple's response to the Justice Department's motion and the earlier court order is due by Feb. 26;
  • U.S. attorneys' response will be due by March 10;
  • Apple's reply brief will be due by March 15;
  • A hearing has been scheduled at 4 p.m. ET on March 22 in federal court in Riverside, Calif.
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