Apple and the FBI appear to be trying to court public opinion by taking their courtroom fight over a locked iPhone to TV audiences.
A day after Apple's Internet chief appeared on Univision to stump for the company's stance on not unlocking an iPhone tied to the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attack, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch appeared Thursday on the "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" to explain the government's position ("The Late Show" is produced by CBS, the parent company of CNET).
Central to the legal battle is an iPhone 5C used by one of the shooters in the massacre, which claimed 14 lives and injured 20 others.
"We've disagreed publicly in court, and I have had a number of great conversations with Tim Cook on issues of privacy," Lynch told Colbert. "What I will say about this is, I understand why this is important to everybody because privacy is an important issue for everyone. It's important to me as the attorney general. It's important to me as a citizen.
"We are not asking for a backdoor, nor are we asking him to turn anything on to spy on anyone," she said, alluding to the Univision interview Wednesday, in which Apple exec Eddy Cue suggested law enforcement could soon be demanding use of iPhone cameras and microphones for surveillance.
"We're asking them to do what their customer wants," she said, noting that the phone belongs to the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, which employed one of the two terrorists killed in a shootout with police after the attack. "It's very narrow and it's very focused."
The interview is the latest salvo in the closely watched and intensifying standoff between Apple and the feds. At issue is whether courts and law enforcement agencies can compel Apple to break the iPhone's security features.
The FBI hopes the phone's contents will reveal more about the terrorists' activities leading up to the attack. But Apple, which had been helping with the investigation, says the government's request goes too far and would essentially create a backdoor or master key to millions of iPhones.
After Cue's interview, in which he suggested a Justice Department victory in the case would lead to greater surveillance through smartphones, the Justice Department said in a court filing Thursday that complying with the FBI's request wouldn't be an "undue burden" for Apple. The filing went on to say that Apple "deliberately raised technological barriers that now stand between a lawful warrant and an iPhone containing evidence related to the terrorist mass murder of 14 Americans."
That accusation drew a swift response from Bruce Sewell, Apple's top attorney, who accused the US Department of Justice of taking a "cheap shot" and waging a smear campaign. During a call with reporters later in the day, Sewell said the Justice Department's brief "reads like an indictment."
The debate over whether Apple should comply with a February 16 federal court order to unlock the iPhone 5C has proven complex and divisive among US citizens, according to multiple surveys. A Pew study found that about 51 percent of those surveyed believed Apple should comply with the court order, while 38 percent said the tech giant shouldn't unlock the iPhone. A Reuters poll had opposite results.
A court hearing to determine whether Apple should be forced to comply with the FBI's request is set for March 22 in federal court in Riverside, California.
"The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" airs on CBS TV stations at 11:35 p.m. ET/PT.
Apple declined to comment on the interview.