AT&T, Tech Giants Back Apple in Government Fight Over Unlocking iPhone

Verizon CEO says wireless carrier is not picking sides but believes Congress should address policy issues

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AT&T and more than a dozen major technology companies have come down strongly on the side of Apple in its battle against the government’s efforts to force it to create software to bypass iPhone security mechanisms.

On Thursday, the telecom giant filed a “friend of the court” brief with the magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, urging the court to vacate the order that would require Apple to develop new code to help the FBI access data on an iPhone used by an attacker in the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings last December.

In addition, among the amicus briefs supporting Apple was a joint brief from 15 tech companies including Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Snapchat and Yahoo. Those companies said they “reject the government’s unsupported assertion that the law allows it to commandeer a company’s own engineers to undermine their products’ data-security features.”

AT&T said in its brief that Congress, not the courts, should decide whether the public interest in compelling companies to assist law enforcement to the extent the government is seeking in this case outweighs privacy concerns.

“Without question, the government should use every lawful means to investigate those crimes, and that includes compelling Apple’s cooperation to the full extent permitted by law,” David McAtee, AT&T senior executive VP and general counsel, wrote in a blog post. “In this case, however, the government seeks more than what can be supported under the law as it is written today. The solution is for Congress to pass new legislation that provides real clarity for citizens and companies alike.”

Verizon, the nation’s biggest wireless carrier, does not currently have plans to file a brief in the case, according to a rep.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, in a post Monday on LinkedIn, said the company is not “taking sides on the Apple case specifically.”

However, McAdam said the Apple case “presents unique policy issues that, in our view, should be addressed by the U.S. Congress.”

“In particular, there may be legitimate reasons for preventing the destruction of data, such as the investigation of terrorism and serious crimes,” McAdam wrote. “These conditions must be strictly defined by law, not arrived at haphazardly on an ad-hoc or case-by-case basis, as in the Apple case.” In any event, Verizon opposes putting tools for directly accessing private data in the government’s hands.

Apple has steadfastly opposed the judge’s order and last week filed a motion requesting that it be vacated. The company argued that the “unprecedented” move violates the U.S. Constitution. CEO Tim Cook has called the prospect of writing code that would defeat iPhone security “the equivalent of cancer.”

A hearing in the case, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California Eastern District, is set for March 22.