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Apple gets backing in FBI iPhone case from privacy groups, tech titans

The ACLU files the first in an expected series of briefs telling a federal court that it sides with Apple and believes an FBI request to hack a terrorist's iPhone threatens everyone's privacy and security.

James Martin/CNET

Public opinion may be divided on whether Apple should modify its mobile software to help the FBI gain access to a terrorist's iPhone, but several leading tech companies and privacy groups are definitely siding with Apple CEO Tim Cook.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the first in what's expected to be a series of amicus briefs in federal court supporting Apple's decision to challenge a February 16 court order that demands the company write a new version of its iOS software to bypass the phone's security. Microsoft, Google, Twitter and Facebook, and privacy groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have said they're also going to submit amicus briefs on Apple's behalf by the March 3 deadline.

Apple has set up a dedicated page on its website to collect all the amicus briefs.

"While the government can in some circumstances require private parties to support law-enforcement enforcement may not commandeer innocent third parties into becoming its undercover agents, its spies, or its hackers," the ACLU wrote in its brief on Wednesday (see below). "If the government prevails, then this case will be the first of many requiring companies to degrade the security and to undermine the trust in their products so essential to privacy in the digital age."

Apple says creating a new, custom version of iOS software is unprecedented and unconstitutional. Cook, in a public letter and other statements, says what the FBI is asking for is a "back door" or "master key" to every iPhone. Once it's created, he adds, it would compromise the privacy and security of the billion iPhones and iPads powered by iOS, Apple's mobile operating system. The FBI says it just wants to find out all it can about the terrorists involved in the December massacre in San Bernardino, California, which claimed the lives of 14 people.

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. This week, Apple's top lawyer, Bruce Sewell, spoke on a panel opposite FBI Director James Comey debating personal security versus national security in a five-hour session on Capitol Hill.

Apple may already have a precedent in place after a US District Court judge on Monday dismissed a similar government request in a case involving the All Writs Act, an iPhone and a drug dealer in Queens, New York. Apple believes the ruling could sway the San Bernardino case. The Department of Justice said it was "disappointed" by the ruling and will continue to challenge the order in the court system.

You can find all our coverage related to Apple versus the FBI here.

Update March 3 at 8:02 a.m. PT: Added link to Apple's web page collecting the amicus briefs filed on its behalf.

ACLU amicus brief supporting Apple