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Americas

Rights groups back Apple’s challenge to court order on unlocking iPhone

media Apple CEO Tim Cook said that the implications of the US government's demands are chilling. REUTERS/Jason Reed/Files

Apple has rejected as "chilling" a US court order to provide technical assistance to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to get into the phone of one of last year's San Bernadino shooters and refused to comply with it, sparking worldwide debate over the balance between security and privacy.

The California-based technology giant said this week it would fight the order.

In a letter posted on the company website, CEO Tim Cook said the implications of the government’s demands based on the All Writs Act are chilling.

He said that the government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept messages, access health records or financial data, track location or even access a phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.

But Cook’s letter is misleading, digital forensics and cybersecurity expert Darren Hayes contends.

“Tim Cook is talking about the overreach of the government and who knows what might happen in terms of surveillance," he told RFI from the US's Pace University. "This is nonsense because that’s not what happened before when Apple would facilitate law enforcement investigation. So I don’t understand why going back to the old model a year and half ago would result in problem for consumers and privacy."

Hayes was referring to the fact that in 2014 Apple made changes to its software so that it would not be possible to unlock customer phones and decrypt data on them. With older versions, Apple has the ability to unlock the device and access data.

Civil liberty groups have lauded Cook’s decision to contest the order.

It’s important that a legal precedent should not be set which could be used to undermine the security of everyone’s phones, argues Eesha Bhandari of American Civil Rights Union.

"The same access that the US government is demanding could be used by other governments and it could be used for other purposes. There’s no reason that this legal precedent will be limited to this particular case,” she said.

And there was support for Apple’s stance from Berin Szoka of the technology thinktank TechFreedom. The court order lays down a bad precedent and factors of privacy and security had to be weighed against the inquiry's needs, according to him.

“The courts should be looking at if we compromise the security of the phones here, could this software be used for other purposes," he said. "Could it be used against more than just this device and what will foreign governments like China and Russia do once they know that Apple has this kind of software on the shelf?

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