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Government hints it may demand iOS source code, signing key

Gregg Keizer | March 14, 2016
Not-so-subtle threat that if Apple won't comply with court order, there's a Plan B … which could be a Lavabit-like ultimatum

Before Lavabit founder Ladar Levison complied and gave the government his SSL/TSL (Secure Socket Layer/Transport Layer Security) encryption key, he was being fined $5,000 a day for not complying.

"See In re Under Seal, 749 F.3d 276, 281-83 (4th Cir. 2014) (affirming contempt sanctions imposed for failure to comply with order requiring the company to assist law enforcement with effecting a pen register on encrypted e-mail content which included producing private SSL encryption key)," the DOJ's brief stated.

The case cited was Lavabit's.

Lavabit was one of several companies and organizations that last week filed "friends-of-the-court" briefs -- called amicus briefs -- supporting Apple in its battle with the DOJ over Farook's iPhone. In that brief, Lavabit argued that, as in its battle with the government, Apple was being forced to give "extraordinary assistance" to law enforcement.

"In simpler terms, this attempted use of the All Writs Act is a blatant and unabashed attempt to circumvent Congress, and pass a heaping pile of bovine feces off as edible," Levison said in a statement last week about the amicus brief and the 1789 law, the All Writs Act, that the government has used to obtain the federal court order compelling Apple to help crack Farook's phone. "In fact, the FBI is using a hard case in an attempt to force bad law on the American people. We were all horrified by the attack in San Bernardino. The American people, however, should not have to sacrifice their rights to privacy and digital security as a result."

Oddly, elsewhere in the DOJ's brief, government lawyers argued that, even if the FBI had the iOS source and Apple's signing key, it would still demand that Apple cooperate further.

"Even if the Court ordered Apple to provide the government with Apple's cryptographic keys and source code, Apple itself has implied that the government could not disable the requisite features because it 'would have insufficient knowledge of Apple's software and design protocols to be effective,'" the brief stated.

A hearing on Apple's objections and the government's response is slated for March 22 before a federal magistrate.


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