SAN FRANCISCO -- Apple on Thursday filed its formal opposition to the federal court order requiring it to help law enforcement officials break into an iPhone, setting the stage for more legal wrangling in a case that has pitted the world's most valuable company against the U.S. government.
In its brief, filed in federal court in California, Apple said the court should vacate the order.
"Apple strongly supports, and will continue to support, the efforts of law enforcement in pursuing justice against terrorists and other criminals -- just as it has in this case and many others," the company said in its motion. "But the unprecedented order requested by the government finds no support in the law and would violate the Constitution." Apple added that the order had broad implications that would "inflict significant harm -- to civil liberties, society and national security -- and would pre-empt decisions that should be left to the will of the people through laws passed by Congress and signed by the president." The company said the court order not only was at odds with existing law, but also violated the company's First and Fifth Amendment rights.
The head of the FBI, battling Apple over unlocking an iPhone used by one of the killers in a December rampage in San Bernardino, Calif., called on Congress on Thursday to settle the question of when law enforcement officials should get access to citizens' private data. "The larger question isn't going to be answered in the courts, and shouldn't be," FBI Director James B. Comey Jr. told lawmakers at a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee.
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"It's really about who do we want to be as a country and how do we want to govern ourselves." Apple has argued that granting the government's request to build software to unlock the phone at issue would compromise the security of all the devices used by its hundreds of millions of customers. But Comey said the case was "unlikely to be a trailblazer," because encryption technology is changing so quickly.
Apple's brief was filed a day before a Friday deadline for the company to respond to the court order issued on Feb. 16 by Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
The judge said Apple was required to weaken its security functions so the government could unlock the iPhone of one of the gunmen in a mass shooting in December in San Bernardino, Calif., to help the investigation.
A senior Apple official said on a conference call with reporters Thursday that the company filed early because of the strong interest in this case. "Apple has gone above and beyond what is required by law to support the government in its investigation," the official said.
Tim Cook, Apple's chief executive, posted a personally signed letter to customers last week in which he said he opposed the order as an intrusion into customers' privacy.
The Justice Department shot back with a sharply worded 25-page motion demanding that Apple cooperate with the order, writing that the company's refusal "appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy."
On Sunday, Justice Department officials say the case offers them a near-perfect set of circumstances to challenge Apple's position in court and force its hand because Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino attackers, is dead; and the iPhone was owned by San Bernardino, not Farook. The shooting was the worst terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.
Cook said during an interview with ABC News this week that the minutiae of his company's legal strategy was not his primary focus. "My primary focus is, as I've said before, is on the customers that would then be vulnerable and the trampling on civil liberties," he said.
When asked if he would be willing to take the case as far as the Supreme Court, Cook said, "We would be prepared to take this issue all the way."