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Apple: Throw out court order to unlock terrorist's iPhone

Last Updated Feb 25, 2016 7:14 PM EST

Apple filed a court motion Thursday calling on a federal judge to vacate the order compelling it to assist the F.B.I. in investigators' efforts to access encrypted data on San Bernardino attacker Syed Farook's locked iPhone.

Apple claims that what the government is asking it to do is "too dangerous," and could expose iPhone users worldwide to intrusion from hackers and government surveillance.

"This is not a case about one isolated iPhone," Apple argues in the 65-page filing. "Rather, this case is about the Department of Justice and the FBI seeking through the courts a dangerous power that Congress and the American people have withheld: the ability to force companies like Apple to undermine the basic security and privacy interests of hundreds of millions of individuals around the globe."

The motion, filed in U.S. District Court in California, continues: "In fact, no court has ever authorized what the government now seeks, no law supports such unlimited and sweeping use of the judicial process, and the Constitution forbids it."

Apple said that the government is trying to compel them to create a new operating system -- a "back door" -- that will override security protections on the iPhone, "making its users' most confidential and personal information vulnerable to hackers, identity thieves, hostile foreign agents, and unwarranted government surveillance." Apple said it believes this is "too dangerous to build."

Microsoft, Facebook and Google all say they will file amicus briefs supporting Apple's position in the case.

On February 16, a federal judge ordered Apple to produce software enabling investigators to unlock the iPhone, which may hold information on the planning or contacts of the San Bernardino shooters, who killed 14 people in December.

The government says Apple needs to comply under the terms of the All Writs Act of 1789, which gives courts the authority to issue orders needed to enforce laws. But Apple argues that it does not provide a basis to force it to create software that allows the government to hack into iPhones.

"Congress has never authorized judges to compel innocent third parties to provide decryption services to the FBI," Apple wrote.

The Justice Department issued a statement Thursday evening defending its approach to the case, and noting that Apple only recently reversed its position and stopped cooperating with law enforcement requests.

"Law enforcement has a longstanding practice of asking a court to require the assistance of a third party in effectuating a search warrant. When such requests concern a technological device, we narrowly target our request to apply to the individual device. In each case, a judge must review the relevant information and agree that a third party's assistance is both necessary and reasonable to ensure law enforcement can conduct a court-authorized search. Department attorneys are reviewing Apple's filing and will respond appropriately in court," the statement said.

In the government's latest court motion, filed last Friday, it picked apart Apple's argument.

"The order does not, as Apple's public statement alleges, require Apple to create or provide a 'back door' to every iPhone; it does not provide 'hackers and criminals' access to iPhones; it does not require Apple to 'hack [its] own users" or to 'decrypt' its phones; it does not give the government 'the power to reach into anyone's device' without a warrant or court authorization; and it does not compromise the security of personal information," the Justice Department wrote.

The government also accused Apple of refusing to comply "based on its concern for its business model and brand marketing strategy."

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for next month.

CBS News Justice Department reporter Paula Reid says the case is likely to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It's not an overstatement to say that this is one of the biggest cases in a generation. This pits privacy against security, business against government. Both sides have heavily entrenched interests," Reid said.

Apple's latest court filing came on the same day that FBI Director James Comey testified about the case on Capitol Hill. Comey defended the government's actions as essential to public safety, while admitting that the dispute between his agency and Apple is "the hardest question I've seen in government."