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Apple calls on Congress to form committee for privacy issues

Apple CEO Tim Cook said the government’s directive would create a dangerous precedent.Richard Drew/Associated Press/File

SEATTLE — Apple Inc. said the government should withdraw its court order requiring the company to help unlock a terrorist’s iPhone, and instead asked that US lawmakers form an expert commission to discuss the implications for privacy, freedom, and national security.

The company would “gladly participate” in such an effort, which has been suggested by some in Congress, Apple said on its website Monday.

Last week, US Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym ordered Apple to lend “reasonable technical assistance” to the FBI in recovering information from the phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., with his wife in December.


Apple has so far rejected the court order, saying that it would open a “Pandora’s box’’ of privacy issues.

The standoff has ignited a long-simmering battle between the tech industry and the government, pitting concerns over civil liberties against the need for surveillance to fight terrorism.

A Congressional panel would open the discussion to more voices than a court hearing would provide, and give the company a broader venue to make its case to the public, which is divided on the issue. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans are backing the FBI, while 38 percent say Apple shouldn’t unlock the phone.

“We feel the best way forward would be for the government to withdraw its demands under the All Writs Act and, as some in Congress have proposed, 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 company said Monday.

A Congressional commission also may pave the way for new laws dealing with questions of privacy and security, measures that technology companies like Apple and Microsoft Corp. say are needed because current communications laws predate technology such as cloud services and the Internet.


The case centers around whether the government can require Apple to write new software to compromise a key security feature of the company’s iOS mobile operating system. The government argues this is a one-time request that will aid an important terrorist investigation.

In a separate letter to employees on Monday, Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook said the directive would create a dangerous precedent that could ultimately require the company to build software to help governments intercept private e-mails and access private health records.

On Sunday, FBI Director James Comey said the litigation over the phone “isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message.”

“We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land,” Comey said in a letter on the agency’s website.“I hope folks will take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending.”

Apple faces a Feb. 26 deadline to file its rebuttal to the government’s argument in court, with a hearing scheduled for March 22.

Apple and FBI officials have been asked to testify in at least two congressional hearings.

Meanwhile, the issue has become fodder among presidential candidates, with Republican front-runner Donald Trump calling for a ban on Apple products. The case could eventually reach the Supreme Court.