Apple Inc on Monday urged the creation of a government panel on encryption to help resolve a standoff over national security and data privacy that began last week after the technology company refused a U.S. government demand to unlock an iPhone used in a mass shooting in California in December.
It was the latest move in a public and symbolic showdown between the U.S. government and technology companies, both of which are keen to set a precedent over how far U.S. investigators can dictate how tech firms handle their customers' data.
"Apple would gladly participate in such an effort," the company wrote in a post on its website entitled "Answers to your questions about Apple and security". (apple.co/1QthT10)
The idea of setting up a commission - which may be a prelude to a broader legislative solution - is not new, although a political resolution of the data privacy and encryption debate has proven elusive for many years.
A digital security commission comprising technology, business and law enforcement experts has been proposed by Democratic Senator Mark Warner and Republican Representative Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, to help break the impasse over encryption.
The bipartisan pair is scheduled to unveil details of legislation that would create a panel at a Washington event on Wednesday.
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook also sent a letter to employees Monday morning, making clear the company's hardline stance addresses broader issues, not just the phone in question.
"This case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation, so when we received the government’s order we knew we had to speak out," Cook said in the email to employees, seen by Reuters. "At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties."
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is seeking the company's help to access Syed Rizwan Farook's phone by disabling some of its passcode protections, which the government says are "non-encryption barriers."
Farook and Tashfeen Malik attacked a holiday party in San Bernardino, California on Dec. 2, killing 14 people and injuring 22. The pair were killed later in a shootout with police.
Apple has argued that while it is technically possible to bypass the security features of the iPhone by building a new operating system, such a move would set a dangerous precedent.
FBI Director James Comey published an article on the national security legal blog Lawfare late on Sunday, arguing the case was not about setting a new legal precedent but "victims and justice."
"Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined," Comey wrote. "We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. That's what this is."
Apple said it has not unlocked iPhones for law enforcement in the past but has extracted data from an iPhone running older operating systems under a "lawful court order."
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion on Friday seeking to compel Apple to comply with a judge's order to unlock Farook's iPhone, though it admitted the move was "not legally necessary" since Apple had not yet responded to the initial order.
"We've handed over all the data we have, including a backup of the iPhone in question," Apple said in its post. "But now they have asked us for information we simply do not have."
In its post, Apple added that "the best way forward would be for the government to withdraw its demands" to unlock the phone. The company could not be immediately reached for further comment.
The case has revived interest on Capitol Hill over how to deal legislatively with what law enforcement calls "going dark" - where tight digital security locks them out of accessing the data of criminal suspects.
But legislating how a tech company should safeguard its customer data has long proven politically unviable. The White House backed down from a push for legislation last year amid stiff opposition from tech firms and privacy advocates.
Bipartisan leaders of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee late Friday invited Apple's Cook and FBI Director James Comey to testify at an upcoming hearing on encryption, though no date was set.
Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein, the top Republican and Democrat of the Senate Intelligence Committee respectively, have long said they intend to introduce legislation that would force a company to be able to grant authorities access to a suspect's data, though a bill has not yet materialized.
Some victims of the attack will file a legal brief in support of the U.S. government's attempt to force open to unlock the phone, a lawyer representing the victims told Reuters on Sunday.