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Apple Accuses Government of Trying to 'Smear' and 'Vilify' Company

Apple took issue with the government's intimation of a "sinister" relationship with China.

Chip Somodevilla, Gabriella Demczuk / Getty

Apple on Thursday accused the government of attempting to “smear” and “vilify” the company in an increasingly acrimonious legal fight over whether it can be forced to help law enforcement hack an iPhone used by one of the assailants in the San Bernardino terrorist attacks.

General Counsel Bruce Sewell said the tone of a government filing earlier Thursday — in which the Justice Department accused Apple of using “false” and “corrosive” rhetoric as a “diversion” — read “like an indictment” and a “cheap-shot brief.” That’s a major departure from the civil tone FBI Director James Comey struck last week in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on the issue of encryption and the challenges confronted by law enforcement.

“Director Comey’s own statement [says] that ‘there are no demons here.’ Well, you certainly wouldn’t conclude it from this brief,” Sewell said in a press briefing. “In 30 years of practice I don’t think I’ve ever seen a legal brief that was more intended to smear the other side with false accusations and innuendo.”

Sewell disputed the government’s assertion that the company’s bolstered encryption was a deliberate attempt to block law enforcement. He said the enhanced security is designed to protect consumers from hackers and criminals, adding that “to suggest otherwise is demeaning.”

“This should be deeply offensive to everyone that reads it,” Sewell said. “An unsupported, unsubstantiated effort to vilify Apple rather than confront the issues in the case.”

The government’s filing cites Apple’s own marketing materials, from the 2014 introduction of a new mobile operating system, which noted: “Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.”

Apple also complained that the government filing raises “the specter that Apple has a different and sinister relationship with China.”

“Of course that is not true, and the speculation is based on no substance at all,” Sewell said. “To do this in a brief before a magistrate judge just shows the desperation that the Department of Justice now feels.”

The government cited articles in the Wall Street Journal reporting that Apple stores users’ data on China’s state-controlled China Telecom equipment (the company noted, then and now, that all customer data is encrypted), as well as a report in PC World that Apple tweaked its iPhone to support the Chinese security protocol for wireless networks.

The filing also referenced a Los Angeles Times article suggesting that the company has been much more accommodating to Chinese authorities.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has publicly said the company does not permit “back doors” in its software.

Sewell issued a Rodney King-like appeal for a return to civility. “We know there are great people in the Department of Justice and the FBI — we work shoulder to shoulder with them all the time. That’s why this cheap-shot brief surprises us so much,” he said, adding, “Let’s at least treat one another with respect and get this before the American people in a responsible way.”

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