U.S. DoJ Increases Hostility Towards Apple In Latest Court Filing

After Apple’s own filing from two weeks ago and its win in the NY Court against the FBI, in a similar iPhone unlocking case, the Department of Justice (DoJ) seems to have ramped up the hostility against Apple in a recent San Bernardino Court filing.

The DoJ went as far as to threaten Apple that if it doesn’t comply, and it may even demand Apple release its iOS source code as well as its cryptographic signatures for the OS, going against its own recent public promise that it "doesn’t seek a master key from Apple." Getting Apple’s signing key for iOS updates would represent exactly that.

DoJ: Weak Security Is Best Security

The Department of Justice also continued to attack Apple over increasing the security of its devices “so that the government cannot search them.” This rather clearly misinterprets Apple’s strong focus on securing its devices against any type of vulnerability.

For instance, without the PIN protections that the FBI and DoJ now want weakened, any hacker or thief could much more easily unlock an encrypted device, given the right tools (which could be easily found online).

Therefore, simply wanting to avoid such a scenario doesn’t mean Apple did it to spite the U.S. government. If we accept that logic, then just about any security patch that fixes a software flaw that the U.S. government was also exploiting could be seen as an action against the U.S. government’s interests.

DoJ: It’s Not About The Precedent

The DoJ once again said that this case has nothing to do with precedent and that Apple is the one trying to make it about more than just this one case. However, as we’ve seen before, many more local and federal law enforcement officials are waiting in line to unlock other iPhones and hoping the FBI would win the case against Apple.

Beyond unlocking the iPhones, it could also set a precedent for the government to demand just about anything from any tech company, under the All Writs Act.

Although the DoJ keeps repeating that this case isn’t about precedent, it is surely acting as if it was, and it’s going to great lengths to defeat Apple in this case. This is happening despite the fact that the terrorist destroyed his personal phone, but left his work phone intact, which means there likely isn’t anything of value in there for law enforcement.

As the ACLU and others have mentioned, if the FBI thought the information was so critical for national security, it could likely get the NSA’s help to unlock the device, or unlock it itself by hacking the hardware. However, the FBI and the DoJ seem to want this to be easy and want it to set a precedent in Court, too.

DoJ: No Undue Burden

The Department of Justice believes that setting aside six employees for two weeks to work on the necessary code would not be too much of a burden for Apple, considering the company has over 100,000 employees and makes tens of billions of dollars a year in profit.

It may not look like too much of a burden for a company such as Apple to unlock this one phone, but if this case sets a precedent, then Apple could be forced to unlock tens of thousands of other devices a year, and not just in the U.S., but all over the world. Even if the code wouldn’t have to be written from scratch every time, managing all of these unlocks and dealing with so many Court cases would still put a large burden on Apple.

The secret signing key that Apple would use to unlock these devices would also become a bigger target to hackers, and it wouldn’t be the first time someone hacked into a company as large as Apple.

Plus, if the DoJ succeeds in getting Apple to do this, it would likely be emboldened to ask the same of other companies -- potentially much smaller companies that don't have the substantial resources that Apple does.

Former CIA Director: FBI Wants To Dictate How iOS Is Written

Former CIA director James Woolsey said on Friday that what the FBI really wants is not just to unlock this one phone, but to change the architecture of Apple’s iOS.

"The last time I looked into the language on this with some care, it did seem to me as if the FBI was trying to get a right essentially to effectively decide what kind of an operating system Apple was going to have, and that they were not just trying to get into one phone. They were trying to change some important aspect of Apple's operating system," Woolsey told CNBC.

Having the U.S. government dictate how iOS’ security should work is a prospect that could hurt Apple’s sales globally, not just in the U.S., as much fewer people would trust how good that security is. We’ve seen the backlash the government’s NIST agency received when Snowden’s document unveiled that the agency pushed a backdoored algorithm through the standardization process.

Apple: DoJ Has Become Desperate

In a conference call, Apple’s senior vice president and general counsel Bruce Sewell said the DOJ has become "so desperate" that it has "thrown all decorum to the wind. He also added that "the tone of the brief reads like an indictment," and it’s an "unsupported, unsubstantiated effort to vilify Apple."

Apple will file its own legal response to the Court by March 15. The new Court hearing will happen on March 22.

Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu. 

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34 comments
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  • turkey3_scratch
    I don't see why the government doesn't go next door to that person's phone provider. They have records of every bit of data of communication that person made.

    The sadder part is that some hacker in his basement could probably get into this phone but the FBI can't.
    3
  • Gam3r01
    "and it may even demand Apple release its iOS source code as well as its cryptographic signatures for the OS"
    So they cant convince (and/or force) apple to open one phone but threatening them with the forcible compromise all of their devices... yeah.... Theyll do that for you.
    4
  • heliomphalodon
    I now believe that Apple will lose in this court. The judge will be very reluctant to vacate her own order. Apple will appeal, but I fear they will fail. The DOJ's arguments seem to me to be persuasive in terms of current US law.
    What I hope Apple does now is capitulate on this battle, while going all-out to win the greater war. Say, "OK, fine. Now, watch this." and release a new version of iOS that removes all back doors, even Apple's own back door that allows them to install a new version of iOS on an iPhone without the customer's consent.
    -4