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Apple ruling reignites privacy debate

Los Angeles [AAP]

A court order demanding that Apple Inc help the US government break into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters opens a new chapter in the legal, political and technological fight pitting law enforcement against civil liberties advocates and major tech companies.

The government argues that the phone is a crucial piece of evidence in investigating one of the worst attacks in the United States by people who sympathised with Islamist militants.

But privacy groups warn that forcing companies to crack their own encryption threatened not just the privacy of customers but potentially citizens of any country.

A federal judge in Los Angeles on Tuesday ordered Apple to provide ‘reasonable technical assistance’ to investigators seeking to unlock the data on an iPhone 5C that had been used by Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people and wounded 22 others on December 2 in San Bernardino, California.

Both were killed in a shootout with police.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been investigating the couple’s potential communications with Islamic State and other militant groups and argued that it needs access to the iPhone to find out more.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Wednesday said the Department of Justice was asking Apple for access to just one device, a central part of the government’s argument.

‘They are not asking Apple to redesign its product or to create a new backdoor to one of their products,’ Earnest told reporters at the daily briefing.

He said the case was about federal investigators learning ‘as much as they can about this one case’ and ‘the president certainly believes that is an important national priority’.

Technology rights groups fear that companies could be ordered to create ‘backdoors’ into devices that would make them insecure and vulnerable to attack by law enforcement or criminal hackers.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook said Tuesday’s court order threatened the security of its customers and had “implications far beyond the legal case at hand”.

If the federal judge, Magistrate Sheri Pym, rejects Apple’s arguments, the company can appeal her order to the district court, and then up the chain, ultimately the US Supreme Court.


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