The Apple logo is pictured at its flagship retail store .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A court order demanding that tech company Apple help the US government unlock the encrypted iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters is shaping up to be a landmark test case of how far the government can go in forcing technology companies to help security and intelligence investigations.
Adding drama to the story, the tech giant warned Wednesday that the FBI's demands would lead to devastating security breaches for millions of ordinary users worldwide.
A federal judge in Los Angeles on Tuesday ordered Apple to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to investigators seeking to read the data on an iPhone 5C that had been used by Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, carried out the San Bernadino shooting.
The government has argued that the iPhone is a crucial piece of evidence. Traditionally, the government has lost in court battles over data monitoring. In this case, civil liberties groups have already warned that forcing companies to crack their own encryption endangers the technical integrity of the Internet, and threatens not just the privacy of customers but potentially that of citizens of any country.
On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates came out strongly on the side of law enforcement, raising the possibility of another legislative effort to require tech companies to put "backdoors" in their products.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Department of Justice was asking Apple for access to just one device, a central part of the government's argument, which Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has said was "simply not true."
"The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone," Cook said in a statement on Tuesday. "But that's simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices."
Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai endorsed Cook's stance in tweets on Wednesday.
"We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders," he wrote. "But that's wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent."
Not surprisingly, trade groups that count thousands of software companies, smartphone makers and network security firms as members decried the government's position, while law enforcement groups backed the Justice Department.
The industry was "committed to working with law enforcement to keep Americans safe," the Software & Information Industry Association said,
Dan Guido, an expert in hacking operating systems, said that to unlock the phone, the FBI would need to install an update to Apple's iOS operating system so investigators could circumvent the security protections, including one that wipes data if an incorrect password is entered too many times.
He said only Apple could provide that software because the phones will only install updates that are digitally signed with a secret cryptographic key.
"That key is one of the most valuable pieces of data the entire company owns," he said. "Someone with that key can change all the data on all the iPhones."
The notion of providing that key is anathema to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online rights group. "Once this master key is created, governments around the world will surely demand that Apple undermine the security of their citizens as well," the foundation said in a statement.
Apple was a topic of discussion on the presidential campaign trail on Wednesday.
Donald Trump, front-runner for the Republican Party's nomination to run in the Nov. 8 election, said on Fox News, "I agree 100 percent with the courts. In that case, we should open it (the iPhone) up ... We have to use common sense."
Another Republican candidate, Marco Rubio, called it a "tough issue" that would require government to work closely with the tech industry to find a solution. Rubio said he hoped Apple would voluntarily comply with the court order.