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Fight over gunman's locked iPhone has major privacy implications 


February 18, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) — An extraordinary legal fight is brewing with major privacy implications for millions of cellphone users after a federal magistrate ordered Apple Inc. to help the FBI hack into an iPhone used by the gunman in the San Bernardino mass shootings.

The clash brings to a head a long-simmering debate between technology companies insistent on protecting digital privacy and law enforcement agencies concerned about losing their ability to recover evidence or eavesdrop on the communications of terrorists or criminals.

On Wednesday, the White House quickly disputed the contention by Apple’s chief executive officer, Tim Cook, that the Obama administration is seeking to force the software company to build a “backdoor” to bypass digital locks protecting consumer information on Apple’s popular iPhones.

The early arguments set the stage for what will likely be a protracted policy and public relations fight in the courts, on Capitol Hill, on the Internet and elsewhere.

“They are not asking Apple to redesign its product or to create a new backdoor to one of their products,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “They’re simply asking for something that would have an impact on this one device.”

Within hours of the judge’s order on Tuesday telling Apple to aid the FBI with special software in the case, Cook promised a court challenge. He said the software the FBI would need to unlock the gunman’s work-issued iPhone 5C would be “too dangerous to create” and “undeniably” a backdoor.

At the center of the debate is the private information carried on nearly 900 million iPhones sold worldwide: Photographs, videos, chat messages, health records and more.

The ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym represents a significant victory for the Justice Department, which last year decided not to pursue a legislative fix to address encryption but has now scored a win instead in the courts.

Federal officials until now have struggled to identify a high-profile case to make its concerns resonate. But in siding with the government, Pym, a former federal prosecutor, was persuaded that agents investigating the worst terror attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11 had been hobbled by their inability to unlock the county-owned phone used by Syed Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in December before dying in a police shootout.


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