SAN, FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON – From security experts worried about hacking to independent app-makers who fear more burdens on their business, a slew of tech industry groups and civil liberties advocates are filing court documents backing Apple in its fight with the FBI.
These “friends of the court” briefs aim to bolster Apple’s challenge of a court order that would force it to help FBI agents hack an encrypted iPhone. That phone was used by Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino mass shooters. The government must file its response next week, prior to a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Sheri Pym scheduled for March 22.
Among those backing Apple in the dispute are some of its biggest competitors, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook. Though some were initially hesitant about seeming to oppose an investigation of violent extremists, they have signaled that they’ll file a joint brief on Apple’s behalf. A group of 17 smaller tech firms, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Airbnb and Reddit submitted a separate joint filing.
Many, though not all, of the filings rehash arguments made by Apple itself in a court filing last week. For instance, a group of cryptographers and security experts warned in their brief that forcing Apple to write software that overrides iPhone security features would produce a dangerous new tool that itself would be vulnerable to theft or hacking.
An organization of app makers, meanwhile, argued that the order would create untenable burdens for smaller tech companies and software developers who might be asked to create similar programs for their own products.
“If the government prevails, then this case will be the first of many requiring companies to degrade the security and to undermine the trust in their products so essential to privacy in the digital age,” attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union warned in their brief, adding that the precedent would implicate “the security and privacy of hundreds of millions of Americans.”
Security experts argued the government’s request is not as simple as it sounds. Any new software code is likely to have unexpected bugs that could be exploited by hackers, according to a brief from Stanford computer scientist Dan Boneh, cryptologist Bruce Schneier, independent researcher Jonathan Zdziarski and four others.
“The security bypass this court would order Apple to create almost certainly will be used on other iPhones in the future,” they warned. “This spread increases the risk that the forensic software will escape Apple’s control either through theft, embezzlement, or order of another court, including a foreign government.”
Meanwhile, the app-makers trade group, known as ACT, noted that Apple has said it would take “between six and 10” engineers to create the software. A similar demand “would be exceptionally onerous for the small companies that constitute the majority of ACT’s members and that are the heart of the mobile economy,” the group argued.
Telecommunications giant AT&T also filed a brief arguing that current law doesn’t support the government’s demand. AT&T urged the magistrate to rescind her order and let Congress address the issue.
Another trade group warned the order would undermine public confidence in “the integrity of the Internet.” The Computer and Communications Industry Association said its members invest heavily in technical measures to protect customers’ information against theft by criminals and hackers backed for foreign states.
CCIA members include Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft — but not Apple. The association has been at odds with Apple over various policy issues such as disputes over technology patents. But an official said the organization believes Apple’s position is right for the industry and the country.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has also said he opposes high-tech “back doors” that would allow the government access to encrypted data on people’s phones and other devices.
The Pentagon chief’s views come amid the legal battle between Apple and the FBI, which is trying to force the tech giant to help unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attacks last December.
“Just to cut to the chase, I’m not a believer in back doors or a single technical approach to what is a complex and complicated problem,” Carter said to applause at a tech event in San Francisco on Wednesday, according to a transcript.
“There isn’t going to be one answer,” Carter added.
“I don’t think we ought to let one case drive a general conclusion or solution. … We have to work together to work our way through this problem.”
The FBI has said it does not want a back door, but needs Apple’s help cracking the iPhone’s passcode.
Apple has argued that the FBI is effectively asking the company to hack its own devices and create a back door that malicious actors could exploit, and many in the tech industry worry the case would lead to a slew of similar requests.
Apple’s refusal to help the FBI has set off an intense political debate about encrypted devices.
The iPhone in question belonged to Syed Farook, a U.S. citizen.
Along with his Pakistani wife, Tashfeen Malik, Farook gunned down 14 people in the Californian city of San Bernardino.