LOS ANGELES (CN) - Apple trashed FBI director James Comey's claims that unlock software would only be used on San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook's iPhone, arguing that law enforcement would use the order to unlock "hundreds" of devices in custody.
In a customer letter published on its website on Monday, Apple doubled down on its position that the creation of a new operating system would create a "dangerous precedent" that could leave millions of iPhone customers' data vulnerable to attack.
"The digital world is very different from the physical world. In the physical world you can destroy something and it's gone. But in the digital world the technique, once created, could be used over and over again on any number of devices," Apple said in the letter.
Law enforcement agencies across the nation have stated they stand ready to ask Apple to unlock hundreds of iPhones if the FBI wins the case, Apple said.
"In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks. Of course, Apple would do our best to protect that key, but in a world where all of our data is under constant threat, it would be relentlessly attacked by hackers and cybercriminals," the company said.
On Friday, the federal government asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym to force Apple to comply with the court's Feb. 16 order to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to FBI technicians trying to get into Farook's password-protected device. Ten failed attempts at cracking the code would auto-erase all the data.
The government downplayed public concerns over privacy by claiming it was asking Apple to do little more than provide an "update" to its operating system that would only apply to Farook's iPhone.
On Sunday, Comey followed the government's filing by arguing that efforts to unlock the phone are not "about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message."
"It is about the victims and justice," Comey wrote in an open letter. "Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined. We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. That's what this is."
Comey called the legal issues "quite narrow" and said that the assistance the FBI is seeking is "limited and its value increasingly obsolete" as technology constantly evolves.
"We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist's passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That's it," Comey wrote. "We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land."
As the privacy battle threatens to overshadow the investigation into the Dec. 2 terrorist attack in San Bernardino that left 14 dead and 22 injured, Comey said he hoped "thoughtful people will take the time to understand that."
"Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn't. But we can't look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don't follow this lead," Comey wrote.
The government on Friday accused Apple of fighting the court order because of "marketing concerns." Comey also took a shot at Apple, arguing that the "serious tension between two values we all treasure - privacy and safety" should "not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living."
Apple reacted emphatically to the accusation that its intention to challenge the order is driven by sales and marketing.
"Nothing could be further from the truth. This is and always has been about our customers. We feel strongly that if we were to do what the government has asked of us - to create a backdoor to our products - not only is it unlawful, but it puts the vast majority of good and law-abiding citizens, who rely on iPhone to protect their most personal and important data, at risk," Apple said.
The phone is the property of San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, where Farook worked as a health inspector. The Apple ID password associated with Farook's phone was changed while in FBI custody.
Apple noted that if investigators had left the device alone it could have been paired to a previously joined network, allowing technicians to access to Farook's data.
"Changing this password meant the phone could no longer access iCloud services," Apple said. "As the government has confirmed, we've handed over all the data we have, including a backup of the iPhone in question. But now they have asked us for information we simply do not have."
Apple has until Feb. 26 to respond to Pym's order. A March 22 hearing is scheduled in Riverside Federal Court on the government's motion to compel Apple to comply.
Representing Apple, attorney Ted Olson told ABC "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos on Sunday that unlocking Farook's phone would open a "Pandora's Box."
"There's no limit to what the government could require Apple to do if it succeeds this way," Olson said.
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