SAN FRANCISCO – From security experts worried about hacking to independent app-makers who fear more burdens on their business, a slew of tech industry groups and civil liberties advocates are filing court documents backing Apple in its fight with the FBI.
Several law enforcement groups, meanwhile, filed briefs in support of federal authorities who are seeking Apple’s help in hacking an encrypted iPhone used by Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino mass shooters.
These “friends of the court” briefs come in advance of a March 22 hearing in which Apple is asking U.S. Magistrate Sheri Pym to reverse an order requiring Apple to create a software program that overrides iPhone security features. That program would let authorities unlock Farook’s phone by guessing its passcode.
Relatives of five people who were killed, along with one survivor of the Dec. 2 attack, also filed a brief saying the FBI’s request is lawful and calling Apple’s concerns “speculative.”
Relatives argued that the phone might contain useful leads or even “explain the motive for this senseless tragedy.” But the husband of another survivor submitted a letter on Apple’s behalf, saying he believes the order would set a bad precedent and adding that he doesn’t believe the phone has any useful information.
Apple’s backers include some of its biggest competitors, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook, which have signaled they’ll file a joint brief on Apple’s behalf. A group of 17 smaller tech firms, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Airbnb and Reddit also submitted a separate joint filing.
Among the filings on Apple’s side, several echoed Apple’s arguments that the judge’s order goes beyond current law and could lead to a wave of similar requests from both U.S. and foreign authorities.
“If the government prevails, then this case will be the first of many requiring companies to degrade the security and to undermine the trust in their products so essential to privacy in the digital age,” attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union warned in their brief, adding that the precedent would implicate “the security and privacy of hundreds of millions of Americans.”
Security experts argued the government’s request is not as simple as it sounds. Any new software code is likely to have unexpected bugs that could be exploited by hackers, according to a brief from Stanford computer scientist Dan Boneh, cryptologist Bruce Schneier, independent researcher Jonathan Zdziarski and four others.
The Apple security-bypass tool will almost certainly see use on other iPhones, the researchers warned. “This spread increases the risk that the forensic software will escape Apple’s control either through theft, embezzlement, or order of another court, including a foreign government.”
The app-makers trade group, known as ACT, noted that Apple has said it would take “between six and ten” engineers to create the software. A similar demand “would be exceptionally onerous for the small companies that constitute the majority of ACT’s members and that are the heart of the mobile economy,” the group argued.
Telecommunications giant AT&T also filed a brief arguing that current law doesn’t support the government’s demand. AT&T urged the magistrate to rescind her order and let Congress address the issue.
Another trade group warned the order would undermine public confidence in “the integrity of the Internet.” The Computer and Communications Industry Association said its members invest heavily in technical measures to protect customers’ information against theft by criminals and hackers backed for foreign states.
CCIA members include Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft — but not Apple. The association has been at odds with Apple over various policy issues such as disputes over technology patents. But an official said the organization believes Apple’s position is right for the industry and the country.
Several law enforcement agencies, including the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, filed an 18-page brief on Thursday supporting the Justice Department.
The groups are worried about the potential “cascading rippling effects … on the everyday investigation, prosecution and enforcement of the laws” that would come with a ruling in favor of Apple, said attorney Joseph V. DeMarco.
Calling Apple’s position dangerous in their brief, the groups said they’re also concerned about the message that could be sent to citizens, who are expected to provide “reasonable assistance to law enforcement as they investigate crimes,” DeMarco said.
BRANDON BAILEY AND TAMI ABDOLLAH