Apple lawyer warns government is on road to ‘limitless’ power in iPhone encryption battles

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By Larry Banks

Apple lawyer Ted Olson, one of the most prominent in the US, on Friday said the government is on the path to limitless power in its fight with Apple over encryption.

In the interview with Laurie Segall from CNN Money, Olson said the are serious implications if the FBI wins over Apple in its bid to force the iPhone maker to assist in unlocking an iPhone used by the San Bernadino terrorist Syed Farook.

A federal judge last week issues an order compelling Apple to create a purposely vulnerable version of iOS in order to try and break the passcode lock on the iPhone 5c in question, which would allow the FBI to use brute force password cracking techniques. The Department of Justice has cited the All Writs Act of 1789, which grants federal courts authority if no other judicial options are available. It was revealed earlier in the week that the FBI is asserting the All Writs act to force assistance to decrypt phones in at least 9 other cases involving Apple devices.

Olson also warned that it would be a dangerous precedent if the DOJ successfully argues its case, and suggested that other government agencies might be able to use the same tools to compel resources to create custom systems that can track people’s movements or listen to their conversations.

“You can imagine every different law enforcement official telling Apple we want a new product to get into something”, said Olson said. “Even a state judge could order Apple to build something. There’s no stopping point. That would lead to a police state”.

This ‘slippery slope’ argument was mentioned in Apple’s response to the court order, and later echoed by CEO Tim Cook in an ABC News interview. Apple and the FBI don’t of course know if there is valuable information on the device, but San Bernadino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan appears to think it’s unlikely. The FBI is still trying to force the firm to comply however.

Olson added that “we must do everything possible” to defuse threats and the perpetrators behind them, but not at the expense of basic civil rights.

“We have got to stop someplace, we cannot break someone’s back to get them to tell somebody where somebody else is”, he said. “So if we’re saying there’s a serious threat, throw out the Constitution in order to prevent that threat, where do we draw the line?”

Olson also suggested that a secure device and ecosystem, which Apple touts as one of the main iOS features, speaks to the limits of government access.

“It is not Orwellian here, you know, where big brother can see anything you want”, he said. “Apple’s constantly trying to improve its iPhones to serve you, the public — and the hundreds of millions of people that trust Apple to do this — to provide security so that people can’t hack in and find out where your children are, or what your medical records are. So if Apple continues to do that, it’s just a point at which the government just can’t get into your soul”, Olson said.

Olson does not believe the company would defy a Surpeme Court ruling in favour of the FBI however. He did point out that there’s a long way to go before the case reaches that point.


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