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Lawmakers, advocacy groups, Snowden take sides in polarizing Apple encryption debate

U.S. legislators, public rights groups and security experts are planting their collective flags in a debate that could have serious ramifications for the future of consumer encryption sparked by a recent court order forcing Apple to aid in the decryption of an iPhone linked to the San Bernardino terrorist attack,

While Apple has been waging a drawn out battle of attrition against government efforts to build software backdoors into its secure iOS operating system —a policy Apple says would weaken or negate strong encryption —the situation rapidly escalated over the past 24 hours.

On Tuesday, a federal judge ordered the company to comply with FBI requests for assistance in unlocking an encrypted iPhone 5c used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. Law enforcement technicians are looking to facilitate a brute force attack, but need specialized software capable of bypassing iOS 9's passcode counter.

Apple CEO Tim Cook took immediate action, vowing to fight government calls for privileged hardware access in a letter posted to his company's website just hours after the order came down. For Cook, the issue has implications far beyond a single iPhone, an argument floated by the White House on Wednesday.

"In the wrong hands, this software —which does not exist today —would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession," Cook said.

There is also the matter of precedent. If the U.S. is allowed special access behind Apple's veil of encryption, some argue other countries will ask for similar treatment. In a slippery slope argument China, a state known to trample on consumer privacy rights in the name of perceived security, would be Apple's most pressing threat. China already holds uncommon leverage as one of Apple's largest and fastest growing markets; a U.S. precedent could tip the scales beyond recovery.

In the aftermath of yesterday's court order, lawmakers have taken to Twitter, cable news and other media outlets with hot takes on the matter, a sampling of which has been collected by The Washington Post.

Those standing alongside Apple include Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Security advocates, most notably Edward Snowden, also threw in with Apple, as did the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union.

"This is an unprecedented, unwise, and unlawful move by the government. The Constitution does not permit the government to force companies to hack into their customers' devices," said ACLU staff attorney Alex Abdo in a statement provided to The Wall Street Journal. "Apple is free to offer a phone that stores information securely, and it must remain so if consumers are to retain any control over their private data."

Siding with the FBI are Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), while presidential candidates Donald Trump and John Kasich voiced similar support from the campaign trail.

With a steadfast Apple, helmed by an equally resolute Cook, under immense pressure from both law enforcement officials the U.S. judicial apparatus, the fight for consumer encryption could take months, if not years to resolve. Apple is already flexing its legal muscle with plans to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, according to CBS News. In the meantime, the company intends to seek a stay on the recent FBI court order until its appeal is decided.