The FBI accused Apple of prioritizing its public relations strategy over a terrorism investigation on Friday in a significant escalation of this week’s war between the tech company and the law enforcement agency.
The accusation, made in a court filing demanding Apple comply with an order to unlock an iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino terrorists, represents a nadir in the relationship between two opponents that previously extended each other public respect.
“Apple’s current refusal to comply with the Court’s Order, despite the technical feasibility of doing so, instead appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy,” justice department attorneys wrote in the Friday filing.
Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, called the court order “chilling” in a letter published on the company’s website, Cook called for public debate.
“The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand,” he wrote.
The government and the US’s most valuable company have been shadowboxing over digital privacy since fall 2014, when Apple expanded the use of encryption on its phones. In a shift, Apple said it would no longer be able to unlock devices for authorities, even if faced with a warrant.
But the disagreement has been mostly cordial. Even in January 2016, FBI director James Comey and other national security officials met Tim Cook in San Jose in an effort to mend fences and look for other areas of cooperation.
The government on Friday took off its gloves.
It accused Apple of “numerous mischaracterizations” of the government’s request and “an incorrect understanding” of the law underlying the Justice Department argument.
The government has asked Apple to write and digitally sign software that would make it easier for investigators to guess the passcode for an iPhone 5C used by Syed Farook, one of the shooters in the December attack in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 people dead.
Apple said that forcing it to do so would undermine trust in the security of its company’s products. The government, in effect, would be forcing it to hack one of its phones through the automatic update process consumers use monthly
An Apple spokesman didn’t immediately return a request for comment on the filing.