The Department of Justice (DOJ) yesterday criticized Apple with the sharpest words yet over the firm's refusal to help authorities unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, calling its legal arguments "corrosive" to American democracy.
In a rebuttal filed Thursday with a California federal court, the DOJ issued a scathing attack against Apple in the case involving an iPhone 5C used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife, Tafsheen Malik, killed 14 in San Bernardino, Calif. on Dec. 2, 2015, before they died in a shootout with police. The government has labeled the attack an act of terrorism.
"Apple's rhetoric is not only false, but also corrosive of the very institutions that are best able to safeguard our liberty and our rights," the government said in a filing to counter Apple's objections to assisting the FBI in accessing the iPhone. "The government and the community need to know what is on the terrorist's phone, and the government needs Apple's assistance to find out."
The FBI has repeatedly said it believes there is information on Farook's iPhone that will be important to its investigation. Other data, including iCloud backups of some of the phone's contents, has been handed over to the FBI. But authorities assert there is probably more on the device.
A February court order to force Apple to help the FBI is at stake: A federal magistrate has told Apple to create a customized version of iOS that would disable several security safeguards, then put the software on the device so authorities can bombard it with passcode guesses.
Apple is contesting the order.
"I can only conclude that the DOJ is so desperate at this point that it has thrown all decorum to the winds," Apple's general counsel Bruce Sewell told reporters yesterday, according to a transcript published by Business Insider.
Thursday's filings refuted Apple's objections point by point, including the Cupertino, Calif. company's Constitutional defenses, its assertions that building tools for the FBI was burdensome, or that giving in would unleash a torrent of similar demands from law enforcement.
At times, the government's language was blistering.
"Instead of complying, Apple attacked the All Writs Act as archaic, the Court's Order as leading to a 'police state,' and the FBI's investigation as shoddy, while extolling itself as the primary guardian of Americans' privacy," the DOJ lawyers wrote.
"The tone of the brief reads like an indictment," Sewell of Apple countered. "In 30 years of practice, I don't think I've seen a legal brief that was more intended to smear the other side with false accusations and innuendo, and less intended to focus on the real merits of the case."
The government also mocked Apple's claim that it would be burdensome to devote six to 10 employees for two to four weeks to craft the mandated software and associated tools. In reply, the DOJ ticked off the firm's employee count and revenue, implying that the work would be trivial for a company of Apple's size.
"Even taking Apple at its word, this is not an undue burden, especially given Apple's vast resources and the government's willingness to find reasonable compromises and provide reasonable reimbursement," the DOJ said.
Nor did the government accept Apple's contentions -- or those of others who filed friends-of-the-court briefs in support of Apple -- that the order was in actuality about more than one iPhone, and that acceding to the FBI's demands would be a slippery slope.
"Apple and its amici try to alarm this Court with issues of network security, encryption, back doors, and privacy, invoking larger debates before Congress and in the news media," the DOJ said. "That is a diversion. Apple desperately wants -- desperately needs -- this case not to be 'about one isolated iPhone.' But there is probable cause to believe there is evidence of a terrorist attack on that phone, and our legal system gives this Court the authority to see that it can be searched pursuant to a lawful warrant."
A hearing on Apple's objections and the government's responses is slated for March 22.