Q&A: Apple vs. FBI is epic fight over privacy and national security

A reporter walks by an Apple logo during a media event in San Francisco, California on Sept. 9, 2015.

A reporter walks by an Apple logo during a media event in San Francisco, California on Sept. 9, 2015.

(JOSH EDELSON / AFP/Getty Images)

Legal experts say the battle between the federal government and Apple Inc. over unlocking the contents of an iPhone is about more than simply helping investigate the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

“The FBI’s request ... represents the next step in the journey to find the Holy Grail of backdoor unencryption, and the next salvo in the ever-escalating battle between law enforcement and tech companies,” said Robert Cattanach, a cybersecurity attorney and former Department of Justice special counsel.

The dispute between Silicon Valley and the federal government has been brewing for some time, but this is expected to become the defining case.

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Chenxi Wang, chief strategy officer at the network security firm Twistlock, said the court battle would be a seminal moment in balancing “privacy and civil liberty against government data access.”


“If Apple succeeds in fighting the court order, it will set up a high barrier for the FBI and the other government groups to access citizen data from now on,” Wang said. “This will absolutely have a ripple effect. Apple is now viewed as the flag bearer for protecting citizen data, and if they succeed, there will be a flood of other companies following suit.”

Here are some basics about the case.

What is the dispute about?

A U.S. judge in Riverside, at the FBI’s request, ordered Apple on Tuesday to help with a key part of the San Bernardino terror probe by developing software to hack into one of its own devices, an iPhone 5c, used by gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people and wounded 22 others before dying in a shootout with police.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has said that obeying the order would set a dangerous precedent, and that creating a “backdoor” to its own security systems could compromise the security of billions of customers.

“Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them,” Cook wrote in a letter published on the company’s website. “But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create.”

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What happens next?

The company will file an opposition to the court order.

What is the government saying?

In the government motion, the FBI argued that Farook intentionally disabled the phone’s iCloud backup function six weeks before the Dec. 2 terror attack at the Inland Regional Center. Any communications during that time that may be linked to the shooting, as well as location data that might help the FBI map the movements of Farook and his wife before and after the attack, are accessible only through the phone itself, the government said.

Investigators were able to retrieve some data from previous iCloud backups, and companies like Apple normally comply with requests to retrieve cloud data because they do not involve giving the government access to company servers or altering software. The San Bernardino County Department of Health, which employed Farook, actually owned the device and gave the FBI permission to search it, according to court filings.

The court order handed down Tuesday would require Apple to provide the FBI with a “recovery bundle,” a file that would reboot Farook’s device while disabling the auto-erase feature that would normally be activated after 10 incorrect log-in attempts. That would allow the FBI to repeatedly enter pass code guesses without risk of destroying the data on the phone.

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What is the All Writs Act of 1789?

In seeking this week’s court order, the U.S. attorney’s office cited the All Writs Act of 1789, a rarely used law that allows judges to issue orders they deem necessary and appropriate. But Apple’s argument that the government is overreaching already has received a favorable reception in at least one court.

Late last year, a U.S. magistrate in Brooklyn, N.Y., denied a government request to obtain a suspect’s iPhone data in a drug conspiracy case, saying that the All Writs Acts might not provide enough legal foundation for such an order.

The Brooklyn magistrate hasn’t issued a final order, but Apple told the court in a filing last week that it would like a decision because it has “been advised that the government intends to continue to invoke the All Writs Act ... to require Apple to assist in bypassing the security of other Apple devices in the government’s possession.”

Apple drew support from civil liberties advocates, who fear that totalitarian governments such as China will demand the company use a similar tool to open phones of opposition leaders and human rights activists.

How do people in San Bernardino feel about the debate?

The Times’ Paloma Esquivel talked to residents.

Residents and those intimately affected by the shooting reacted on Wednesday with a mix of feelings to the announcement by Apple that it would oppose a federal court order to help the FBI access data on a cellphone used by one of the shooters in the Dec. 2. attack.

Some, including the father of one victim, said they hoped the two sides would find a way to balance the urgent need for information about the shooters with the privacy needs of ordinary cellphone users. Others urged the company to comply with the order and help law enforcement. | Twitter: @traceylien | Twitter: @ByBrianBennett | Twitter: @peard33 |Twitter: @JamesQueallyLAT


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