Profit or Patriotism? What’s Driving Fight Between U.S. and Apple

Battling in intense public broadsides, Apple Inc. and the government are making their cases before anyone steps into a courtroom over a judge's order forcing Apple to help the FBI hack into an iPhone in a sensational terrorism case.

Both sides are framing their statements in ways that foreshadow the high-profile legal arguments that pit digital privacy rights against national security interests -- and could affect millions of cellphone users.

Apple has until next Tuesday to protest in court the decision by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym in California. But the public relations campaigns -- pitting one of the world's leading technology companies against the muscle of the U.S. government -- are already underway.

Is Apple adequately cooperating with federal agents investigating the deadly terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California? Is this simply a dispute to recover information from an iPhone 5C used by the gunman, or more broadly a fight affecting the privacy rights of innocent citizens who use Apple's flagship product? Is this about profits or patriotism?

It depends on who you ask, and key players include powerful institutions of government, politics and industry.

The Justice Department fired its first salvos in court papers asking the judge to order Apple to create sophisticated software that the FBI could load onto the phone to bypass a self-destruct feature that erases all data after 10 consecutive, unsuccessful attempts to guess the unlocking passcode. Pointedly, prosecutors said Apple could help the FBI "but has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily," and they said Apple could perform the task easily. That point is crucial because the government can't compel a company's help in some cases if doing so would be unreasonably burdensome, even though the U.S. would almost certainly pay Apple for the work.

Apple CEO Tim Cook disputed the claims in his first public statement, distancing the...

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