Apple Goes to Court, and F.B.I. Presses Congress to Settle iPhone Privacy Fight

Apple Goes to Court, and F.B.I. Presses Congress to Settle iPhone Privacy Fight

SAN FRANCISCO — The legal wrangling over a federal court order requiring Apple to help law enforcement break into an iPhone intensified Thursday, with the company filing its formal response and asking the court to drop its demand.

Other technology companies — Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Facebook and Yahoo — also moved to throw their weight behind Apple in court. The companies said they planned to file one or more briefs backing Apple next week in federal court in California.

The flurry of legal activity by the companies came as the F.B.I. also escalated the matter, calling on Congress to settle the question of when law enforcement should get access to citizens’ private data. Apple earlier this week had also asked for Congress to step in.

“The larger question isn’t going to be answered in the courts, and shouldn’t be,” James B. Comey Jr., the F.B.I. director, said in a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee earlier on Thursday. “It’s really about who do we want to be as a country and how do we want to govern ourselves.”

The day’s events were among the most active yet in a case set in motion last week by Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the Federal District Court for the Central District of California. Judge Pym ordered Apple to weaken its security functions so the United States government could unlock the iPhone used by one of the gunmen in a mass shooting in December in San Bernardino, Calif., to help the investigation. Apple immediately said it opposed the order, prompting a heated back-and-forth in a situation fueling a debate over privacy and civil liberties versus security.

The fight is an important moment in the growing tension between tech companies that have access to huge amounts of private customer data and the government, which has long sought greater access to that information. Apple has said customer data must remain accessible only to customers to protect their civil liberties. Law enforcement officials like Mr. Comey say that increasingly robust encryption technology is hurting their ability to fight criminals.

The case may eventually end up before the Supreme Court. Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has said, “We would be prepared to take this issue all the way.”

In Apple’s formal response to the court on Thursday, which was filed a day ahead of a Friday deadline, the company said the court should drop its order because it oversteps an existing law known as the All Writs Act, as well as Apple’s First Amendment and Fifth Amendment rights.

“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 filing, known as a motion to vacate. “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.”

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