Apple has rebuffed a court order to hand over in real time texts sent using iMessage between two iPhones because its encryption system leaves the company unable to comply.
The order was obtained by the US Department of Justice during an investigation over the summer involving guns and drugs, according to a report in the New York Times, and represents the first known direct face-off between the government and Apple over encryption.
The two have been fighting a proxy war for almost a year now. The US government, led by the FBI, has been making increasingly strident calls for technology companies to stop providing ubiquitous encryption to customers, arguing that the tools harm the American people by making it harder to catch terrorists, paedophiles and other criminals.
In September 2014, the director of the FBI, James Comey, specifically criticised Apple’s decision to enable “end-to-end” encryption in its then-new mobile operating system, iOS8, which is what prevents the company from reading its users’ messages.
Comey said at the time: “I like and believe very much that we should have to obtain a warrant from an independent judge to be able to take the content of anyone’s closet or their smart phone. The notion that someone would market a closet that could never be opened – even if it involves a case involving a child kidnapper and a court order – to me does not make any sense.
“Google is marketing their Android the same way: ‘Buy our phone and law-enforcement, even with legal process, can never get access to it,’ ” he added.
But despite Comey’s attacks, Apple has continued to provide more security features to users. In October 2014, the company released the latest version of its desktop operating system, Mac OS X Yosemite, with an option to encrypt the computer’s entire hard drive on by default for the first time.
And this summer, the company joined forces with its arch-rival Google to write to the Obama administration urging the US government to preserve strong encryption against pressure from law enforcement agencies.
The letter argued that “strong encryption is the cornerstone of the modern information economy’s security”, and that the government should “fully support and not undermine efforts to create encryption standards [nor] in any way subvert, undermine, weaken or make vulnerable” commercial software.
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