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Slippery Slope? Court Orders Apple To Unlock Shooter's iPhone


Apple says it will fight a federal court order to help the FBI break into an iPhone. Specifically, it is the phone used by Syed Farook, one of the two terrorists who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif. The feds say they can't access the phone because of Apple's security features. Apple calls the court order government overreach, arguing it threatens the privacy of all its customers.

NPR's Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This fight's been brewing for more than a year, since the fall of 2014 when Apple rolled out a new operating system for the iPhone with encryption so good that even Apple wouldn't be able to open it without the owner's password. Cyrus Vance, Jr. says that made his job harder. He's the district attorney in Manhattan, and his evidence department now has a growing inventory of unopenable iPhones.

CYRUS VANCE JR.: We now have about 155 to 160 devices that are running on iOS 8 that are blocked and we can't get in them.

KASTE: They can't get in, even with a warrant. Permission from a judge is beside the point because Apple simply can't comply. Vance has been campaigning against the company's policy for months. He says a mature company would feel a responsibility to help with public safety.

VANCE: They're taking the opposite approach and acting like teenagers saying you can't tell me what to do, no matter how important the public safety imperative is.

KASTE: And this is why the law enforcement world is celebrating the FBI's showdown with Apple over the phone from San Bernardino. The feds are essentially saying - OK, Apple. You say you can't open this phone, but you still have to help us.

ROBERT CATTANACH: The government is very strategic in doing two things. It picked a very high profile, very emotional case, and what it requested was very narrow.

KASTE: That's Robert Cattanach, a former Justice Department attorney who now specializes in cybersecurity. He says the FBI is just asking Apple to write a piece of custom software that'll keep the phone from wiping its data while the feds use their own methods to try to hack in. It seems like a small favor to ask, and Cattanach says that's the point.

CATTANACH: Once you take this step, if you are Apple - and I - there are all sorts of reasons why they're not going to take this step willingly. But then what's the next step and the next step? Then where do you draw the line?

KASTE: In other words, this could be the start of a slippery slope, with the government asking for one small technical favor after another. Apple CEO Tim Cook certainly sees it that way. In a letter to customers, he said it could lead to government requests for Apple to write surveillance software or to track phone locations. That fear has privacy advocates rallying to Apple's side.

Christopher Soghoian is the ACLU's principal technologist. He says people in law enforcement seem to think that they should never be completely locked out of any technology.

CHRISTOPHER SOGHOIAN: They think that it's reasonable that people have a fight about what piece of paper the government gets - whether they get a warrant, whether they get a wiretap order, whether they get a subpoena - but that ultimately every single bit of information should be available to the government. And then I think there are many people in the civil liberties community who think that, in fact, that it should be possible to have a conversation that the government can never listen to.

KASTE: Pete Modafferi is the chief of detectives for the district attorney's office in Rockland County, N.Y., and he's been analyzing the effects of growing encryption for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. In recent years, cell phones have become key for police work. He says a detective is lucky when he finds one at a crime scene. And that's why he's puzzled by the people who are taking Apple's side in this.

PETE MODAFFERI: But I can't understand why people are so upset about the possibility of law enforcement using legal process to get access to this evidence. We're not after John Q. Public. We're really after criminals, and I don't think they understand the magnitude of what they're doing to us.

KASTE: For law enforcement agencies who share this view, the FBI's request for help in the San Bernardino case has the potential of swinging public opinion back toward the cops' point of view.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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