Apple vs the FBI: a recap of this week’s events


When a federal judge in California ordered Apple to aid the FBI in an investigation earlier this week, she sparked what many believe is the most important privacy debate in recent memory. The FBI wants access to the passcode-locked iPhone of one of the shooters involved in last year’s San Bernardino massacre, and it wants Apple to help it break in.

At a high level, this seems pretty simple: the FBI has bad guy’s phone; it wants to use it to try and stop other bad guys; it needs Apple’s help to do that. But you don’t have to zoom in very far to see that it’s much more complex. Apple refused to help the FBI, saying that the request “undermines the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

That was on Wednesday. Here is everything that has happened since.

Tuesday, February 16

Judge orders Apple to help FBI recover data from San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone – The ruling says that the Cupertino firm must provide “reasonable technical assistance” to the FBI in recovering data from the handset. More specifically, the device is an iPhone 5c that belongs to Syed Farook, who with his wife Tashfeen Malik murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California last year. The phone is locked with a passcode, and prosecutors say data found in Farook’s iCloud account suggests it could contain evidence.

The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) announced its support for Apple, saying that it applauded the company for “standing up for real security and the rights of its customers.” It later filed an amicus brief in support of Apple’s position.

Wednesday, February 17

Apple vehemently opposes FBI request to create iPhone backdoor in San Bernardino court case – A letter entitled ‘A Message to Our Customers’ appears on Apple’s website, signed by Tim Cook, that explains what the court order is and why Apple is against it. It’s a lengthy post, but the gist of it is that the iPhone-maker feels the FBI has asked it to create a “backdoor” for its iOS platform that would be extremely dangerous if in the wrong hands.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Department of Justice is asking Apple for access to just one device. “They are not asking Apple to redesign its product or to create a new backdoor to one of their products,” Earnest told reporters at a daily briefing. That same day, the DOJ released a statement saying, “it is unfortunate that Apple continues to refuse to assist the department in obtaining access to the phone of one of the terrorists involved in a major terror attack on U.S. soil.”

Several politicians and lawmakers came out strongly on the side of law enforcement. A few of the more notable statements came from Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who said “Apple chose to protect a dead ISIS terrorist’s p‎rivacy over the security of the American people, and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, “in case Apple doesn’t comply with the FBI’s request, [we] are prepared to put forward a law which would essentially require that.”

After a lengthy silence, leaders from Silicon Valley began to voice their support for Apple’s fight. The list of names included Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Yahoo CISO Bob Lord, WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and Facebook (a general statement from the company).

Thursday, February 18

Apple gets more time to fight order to unlock iPhone. The company’s response in court will be due February 26 instead of Tuesday (the 23rd), said two people familiar with the timeline, who asked not to be identified because the matter wasn’t public. The federal magistrate who on February 16 granted the Justice Department’s request for an order forcing Apple to help the FBI had given the company five business days to oppose her order.

Friday, February 19

DOJ Files Motion to Force Apple to Hack iPhone in San Bernardino Case. “The government does not seek to deny Apple its right to be heard, and expects these issues to be fully briefed before the Court; however, the urgency of this investigation requires this motion now that Apple has made its intention not to comply patently clear,” the Justice Department wrote in its 35-page motion. It also noted that it feels Apple’s refusal in this matter “to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy above all else.”

Apple Executives Detail Scope Of FBI Request and company’s motivations for not complying. In a call with reporters, Apple executives spoke in response to the motion filed by the Justice Department, saying that they had been communicating with the government since January and had posed several different ways to get the information that the FBI says it needs. Those methods were rendered moot apparently when the Apple ID password to the attacker’s account was changed less than 24 hours after the government took possession of the phone.

San Bernardino County says it reset terrorist’s iCloud password while cooperating with the FBI. The iCloud account connected to Syed Farook’s iPhone was reset in the hours after the December 2 terrorist attack by a San Bernardino County employee in an effort to gain access to iCloud information connected to Farook. San Bernardino County says that it did so while cooperating with the FBI.

Donald Trump calls for a boycott of Apple products. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted out a request that his followers boycott all Apple products until it complies with the government’s request. Trump has more than 6 million Twitter followers, and is a favorite to win the White House this fall. Speaking on background with reporters, Apple executives said they “felt they were in good company given the other groups and people Trump has criticized in the past.”

And that brings us to today, Saturday, February 20. Expect to hear a lot more about this in the days, weeks and even months to come. It seems very clear that both Apple and the Justice Department are intent on making this battle about much more than a single iPhone.

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