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Tech vs. the Feds: Apple Allies Rally in Flurry of New Court Filings

The world of bits and bytes is locking arms with Apple in a set of new legal filings on Thursday.
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This is a whole other kind of tech support.

The world of bits and bytes is locking arms with Apple in a set of new legal filings on Thursday as the company makes its stand against the government in a California court.

AT&T and Intel said they would separately file briefs urging the court to vacate the order compelling Apple’s cooperation. Twitter, Reddit, eBay, LinkedIn and Airbnb were among a group of 17 companies that filed a joint brief.

Microsoft, Google, Dropbox, Facbook and Mozilla were among the other big tech names that submitted amicus, or “friend of the court,” briefs before the end of the day Thursday, backing Apple in its fight to not comply with a court order issued on Feb. 16.

"We stand against the use of broad authorities to undermine the security of a company’s products,” Dropbox general counsel Ramsey Homsany said in a statement.

A feud has been brewing between tech and the government in the nearly three years since the first surveillance revelations from Edward Snowden — in court documents, academic papers and congressional hearings that generally go unnoticed by those outside Washington or Silicon Valley. And for the most part, both sides of the dispute preferred to keep things civil.

But this case, which mixes the threat of spies and hackers with that of international terrorism, has sparked a firestorm of public interest and concern. The government wants Apple to build a piece of software that would circumvent security features on an iPhone 5C used by San Bernardino massacre shooter Syed Farook, allowing agents to try passcodes and access the phone.

The stance taken by Apple, one of the world's most valuable companies, was opposed by a series of briefs filed by representatives of the law enforcement community, as well as one filed on behalf of six people — Gregory Clayborn, James Godoy, Tina Meins, Mark Sandefur, Robert Velasco and Hal Houser — who had family members hurt or killed in the December shootings that claimed 14 lives.

"No one knows with certainty what unique data resides on the iPhone, but there is reason to believe it contains communications between Farook and victims, survivors, and affected loved ones of the shooting, who were Farook's coworkers," the family members say. "It may explain the motive for this senseless tragedy."

Read More: Apple vs. Feds: Lawmakers Hammer FBI Chief in Encryption Hearing

Apple and privacy and security advocates have warned that the method proposed by the FBI could have dire consequences if it fell into the wrong hands — and that such a tool almost certainly would once invented.

"For practical reasons, the security bypass this court would order Apple to create almost certainly will be used on other iPhones in the future," computer security experts say in a brief compiled by Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.

"This spread increases the risk that the forensic software will escape Apple’s control either through theft, embezzlement, or order of another court, including a foreign government."

In the brief filed by Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay and 14 others, the companies acknowledged that many of them have and will continue to provide data to the government when it’s requested through the proper legal processes. But they contend that the nature of the government’s demand under the All Writs Act in the San Bernardino iPhone case “is unbound by any legal limits."

"People I think want privacy on their phones, they don’t want people hacking in and they don’t want government especially to get into the phone without probable cause, without a warrant,” Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) said in an interview on Thursday.

Poe was among the lawmakers who probed FBI Director James Comey at House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday about the larger issue of encryption that however mostly focused on the San Bernardino Apple case.

But not everyone's on Apple's side.

"To be clear: if Apple can refuse lawful court orders to reasonably assist law enforcement, public safety will suffer," the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and National Sheriffs' Association say in a joint brief opposing Apple. "Crimes will go unsolved and criminals will go free."

"Apple's iPhones and iPads are ubiquitous. They are powerful. They are used by criminals, as well as crime victims."

The American Civil Liberties Union, Access Now, the Wickr Foundation, ACT/The App Association and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression have all submitted briefs or letters to the court in support of Apple's argument. Digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted a brief co-signed by 46 prominent experts in the fields of computer research and cryptography.