The public dispute between the Justice Department and Apple continued Monday as the tech giant called on the government to withdraw its demands for help in unlocking a phone used by one of the shooters in December’s terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., and instead let a commission of experts discuss the issue.
This request came in an unsigned letter posted online by Apple that offered the company’s perspective on the debate, the latest salvo in a war of words between the federal government and one of the world’s most valuable companies.
In recent days, the director of the FBI and the chief executive of Apple have both released public statements on the disagreement, each seeking to explain their side in what has become part of a much larger debate over balancing privacy and security.
So far, it appears that the public is siding with the Justice Department in this feud. A little more than half of Americans (51 percent) said Apple should help the FBI unlock the iPhone, compared to 38 percent who said Apple should not help, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Monday. (Another 11 percent said they did not know or have an opinion.)
People do seem to be acutely aware of the dispute, highlighting why both sides have been working so hard to get their points of view to the public: Three out of four people said they have heard a lot or a little about the debate, said Pew, which conducted the survey from Thursday through Sunday.
Apple on Monday urged the Justice Department to drop its request and instead “form a commission or other panel of experts on intelligence, technology, and civil liberties to discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy, and personal freedoms.”
The tech company also offered a criticism of the federal government for having the phone’s iCloud password reset after the attack, which Apple described as a move that forestalled one of the best suggestions it had for accessing the phone’s information.
This particular confrontation centers on an iPhone possessed by Syed Rizwan Farook, a San Bernardino County health worker who, with his wife, gunned down 14 people at a holiday party in December before they were killed in a shootout with police. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, pledged fealty to the Islamic State, and authorities are still looking into whether the pair had any ties to groups or people operating overseas.
In a letter posted Sunday night, FBI Director James Comey asked people to “take a deep breath” and described the government’s request as quite narrow, insisting that authorities were not asking Apple to create “a master key” as the company has suggested.
Comey also made explicit what has been otherwise implied by the government’s remarks in legal filings, writing that the government was only focused on seeing whether Farook’s phone can lead investigators to other terrorists.
“Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists,” Comey wrote. “Maybe it doesn’t. But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead.”
This dispute spilled into very public view last week when the Justice Department sought and received an order from a California judge telling Apple to disable a feature that automatically clears data from a phone after 10 incorrect attempts at entering a password.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook responded to the order by writing a public letter calling the government’s request “chilling” and saying that it demands “something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create.”
“They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone,” he said.