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Apple-Justice Department Battle Pits Privacy Against National Security


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is off today. I'm Linda Wertheimer. A faceoff this week between the federal government and one of the world's biggest companies, a federal judge has ordered Apple to assist the FBI in breaking into the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Apple has refused. Yesterday, the Justice Department filed a motion to compel Apple to assist them. Laura Sydell is NPR's digital cultural correspondent. Hi, Laura.


WERTHEIMER: So could you talk about what led up to this, where we now have a federal judge ordering Apple to assist the FBI in getting into Syed Farook's telephone?

SYDELL: All right, little back story here, so Farook and his wife, who's also a suspect in the shooting died, in a police shootout. And Farook had a phone that was actually owned by his employer. Farook, however, as many of us do, created the password on the phone. And Apple has a feature on its phones that can be enabled basically to erase all the data after 10 guesses as to what the password is. So you could see the federal government, if they tried to guess, they could lose everything on the phone. So the DOJ asked Apple to help them break through the encryption, and Apple said no. The DOJ went to a court, got a judge's order to compel Apple to help.

WERTHEIMER: So why doesn't Apple help?

SYDELL: In a very strongly worded post on Apple's website, CEO Tim Cook said that helping the government in this case would make millions of other iPhones less secure. And he meant that in two ways. One is that to break into Farook's phone, Apple would have to develop a special software to disable the security feature. And if it does this, once it enables that, it will make all phones less secure because somebody could get a hold of that special software, and hackers could use it. His second reason is a legal one. If you set a precedent here, if you allow the government to come in and let - force you to do it in this one case, it could force you to do it in many other cases.

WERTHEIMER: Has the government responded to Mr. Cook?

SYDELL: Yes, the government is not buying that Apple can't develop a software key that's specific to this device. And I have to say, I've heard conflicting opinions on that from experts. Some think it's possible. Some don't. Secondly, the government said there's a precedent for asking a private company to assist in helping it get data for an investigation. In the motion that it filed on Friday, the DOJ pointed to a case from 1977, U.S. versus New York Telephone, in which the court directed New York Telephone to help the government tap phones and said that is a precedent for what it's asking Apple to do.

WERTHEIMER: So tell us about the filing from the government yesterday. Didn't the court already order Apple to help the government, so here they go again?

SYDELL: Yeah, I know. It's - I actually am going to quote UC Hastings law professor, Ahmed Ghappour, who said the reason the government did this is pure PR. There actually isn't a legal reason that the government needed to file this motion. It laid out everything that's already been said in the motion. But Apple got a lot of attention when Tim Cook publicly posted his reasons for not complying with the government's order on its website. And Ghappour thinks the government filed this on Friday because it didn't want Apple to have the last word this week. And in many ways, this particular situation is a PR war. The public opinion is going to matter. How do we feel about the government being able to compel a company to write code to help it out? Is there enough to be gotten from this phone that we're willing to jeopardize our privacy in the long run? In the past, when most things were in the physical world, if you created a key for one door, chances are it wouldn't affect all the other doors. But in the digital age, things are different. And it looks like, in this case, Tim Cook is saying, we need spaces where no one, not the government, not a hacker or even a private company, that makes the device can get in.

WERTHEIMER: So what's next?

SYDELL: Appeals, appeals unless Congress, in its wisdom, decides to do something. But Congress hasn't been doing a lot lately, so I don't know.

WERTHEIMER: That's NPR's Laura Sydell. Laura, thank you.

SYDELL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.