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Apple Privacy Push Faces First Big Test From US Government

With tech companies stepping up privacy protections for users, law enforcement looks for new ways to access data

Apple's new encryption tools are preventing the tech company from complying with DOJ orders. (Photo: Ian Higgins/flickr/cc)

In the latest development in the battle for privacy rights, Apple has rejected a court order to hand over to the U.S. Department of Justice a series of text messages sent between two iPhones, citing encryption safeguards that prevent the company from accessing communications data.

The DOJ says it needs to see the text messages for a criminal investigation—but Apple responded that its new operating system prevents the tech company from accessing data on phones with PINs or passwords, even for law enforcement agencies. The dispute highlights a new frontier in the electronic privacy debate that sparked after Apple introduced its more consumer-friendly iOS last year.

While the DOJ has not yet responded to Apple's inability to comply with the court order, observers have pointed out the parallels with the DOJ's other ongoing tussle with a tech giant—Microsoft.

The New York Times reports:

The [Microsoft] case, which goes before a federal appeals court in New York on Wednesday and is being closely watched by industry officials and civil liberties advocates, began when the company refused to comply with a warrant in December 2013 for emails from a drug trafficking suspect. Microsoft said federal officials would have to get an order from an Irish court, because the emails were stored on servers in Dublin.

In the wake of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's 2013 domestic surveillance revelations, the call for increased consumer protections against government spying has been met with outspoken rhetoric from intelligence agencies which insist that access to communications data is vital for national security.

FBI director James Comey in October warned that adding encryption protections to cell phones and other devices would leave law enforcement "in the dark" in counter-terrorism operations and hunting down child molesters. Agents in "law enforcement, national security, and public safety are looking for security that enhances liberty," he said during a speech at the Brookings Institution.

But that hasn't convinced Apple or other tech companies, such as Google, that have stepped up privacy protections for users. And it rings hollow for civil liberties advocates, who maintain that encryption tools do not hinder police and FBI operations.

Apple has previously argued that the type of access being pursued by the government could leave users open to hackers and other privacy exploitation, although the company has also privately expressed interest in finding a compromise with the DOJ, according to the Times.

It is unlikely that the DOJ will take Apple to court the same way it did Microsoft, experts say. But the dynamics between the two sides may be setting up an unprecedented outcome.

As Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith explained in a recent interview, "Clearly, if the U.S. government wins, the door is open for other governments to reach into data centers in the U.S."

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