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Justice Department Wants Court To Force Apple To Decrypt iPhones Because Apple Licenses, Not Sells, iOS

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The Department of Justice has been explicit about its disgust for the government-grade encryption Apple baked into iOS. With Apple still declining to give law enforcement agencies keys to the backdoor of iOS and evidence on the line, the justice department has dragged the tech company to court and has countered the iPhone maker's initial reasons for staying neutral.

The feds want access to an iPhone 5s owned by a man who's now a defendant in a drug case and currently facing accusations of possessing and distributing meth. Apple has declined to hand over the keys to iOS, stating that, among several reasons, any backdoor access creates new vulnerabilities.

The department secured a warrant, but got stuck on the lock screen. From there, it reached out to Apple for help and asked the company if assisting with the encrypted phone would be "unduly burdensome." And Apple said "yes," that would be a burden.

Apple argued that giving the government special access into iOS, which it touts as being out of reach of federal snoops, would "tarnish the Apple brand."

"Absent Apple's assistance, the government cannot access that evidence without risking its destruction. But Apple can," states the court brief (PDF).

Apple has assisted in federal cases before by extracting the requested data and passing it along to law enforcement agencies, the DOJ reasoned in the brief.

So with Apple unwilling to budge and court orders falling flat, thus far, the department changed its tactics and is now arguing that the company "is not far removed from this matter."

Apple designed, built and sold the iPhone 5s in question. But that's just the beginning, the government stated.

"Apple wrote and owns the software that runs the phone, and this software is thwarting the execution of the warrant," the justice department added. "Apple's software licensing agreement specifies that iOS 7 software is 'licensed, not sold' and that users are merely granted 'a limited non-exclusive license to use the iOS Software.'"

From there, the DOJ calls into question the legal protection of Apple as a licensor of software.

"Apple cannot reap the legal benefits of licensing its software in this manner and then later disclaim any ownership or obligation to assist law enforcement when that same software plays a critical role in thwarting execution of a search warrant,"

For privacy watchdogs, the above argument might invoke goosebumps. If the DOJ's reasoning stands, it could take up that strategy with other companies giving out licenses to software.

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