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More parties back Apple in FBI encryption dispute via court letters, amicus briefs

Apple on Thursday picked up more outside legal support in its refusal to build custom software for the FBI, which it wants to circumvent the passcode limit on the iPhone of dead San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook.

A group of 17 technology companies filed a joint amicus brief, among them Airbnb, Kickstarter, Twitter, Square, Reddit, Medium, LinkedIn, and eBay, CNN said. Wireless carrier AT&T filed a separate brief, according to Yahoo.

As anticipated, a letter to the court was filed by David Kaye, a United Nations Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression issues. Kaye argued that encryption and online anonymity are essential to free speech, and attached a copy of a May report to the U.N. Human Rights Council on the topic.

Kaye also contended that while the U.S. government has a "clearly legitimate interest" in security, it may not have the legal authority to demand software from Apple, and there are "multiple, alternative technical and operational measures" it could use to pursue its investigation.

A joint amicus brief was meanwhile filed by a variety of cryptography and iPhone security experts, including people from universities like Stanford, Harvard, Rice, and the University of California San Diego. Of interest are Charlie Miller and Jonathan Zdziarski, well-known figures in the Apple security world.

The group's brief claims that the government's court order "endagers public safety" by forcing a company to degrade its security and open products up to surveillance. The requested tool would "almost certainly" be used on other iPhones, the brief says, and from there could potentially escape Apple's control, ending up in the hands of criminals or foreign governments.

Hackers might theoretically reverse-engineer the code to undermine Apple's passcode system, and the brief also suggests that the order could cause people to turn off automatic software updates in the worry that government spyware is installed.

Another joint amicus was submitted by several industry organizations, namely BSA/The Software Alliance, the Consumer Technology Association, the Information Technology Industry Council, and TechNet. Those groups more directly attacked the government's invocation of the All Writs Act, calling into question its interpretation and saying that it can't be used to make a company create a new product.

Addressing the potential fallout of the FBI winning, the group's brief references the 2013 leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed the NSA's mass surveillance apparatus in the U.S. and abroad, as well as corporate collusion. Ordering Apple to build software could cause the public to lose trust in American government and corporations, give foreign businesses an edge, and give repressive foreign governments an excuse to demand similar help, according to the organizations.

All of the legal documents are directed at a hearing coming up on March 22, in which the court order targeting Apple will be reviewed.