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By Jim Finkle and Joseph Menn

(Reuters) – A court order demanding that Apple Inc (AAPL.O) help the U.S. government unlock the encrypted iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters is shaping up as a crucial test case of how far the government can go in forcing technology companies to help security and intelligence investigations.

Law enforcement agencies have for years faced off against tech firms and privacy advocates over their ability to monitor digital communications, and the government to date has largely lost the battle.

But the specific circumstances of the San Bernardino case, a young married couple who sympathized with Islamic State militants and killed 14 people and wounded 22 others in a shooting rampage at a holiday party, could give government officials the legal precedent they need to reverse the tide.

A federal judge in Los Angeles on Tuesday ordered Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to investigators seeking to read the data on an iPhone 5C that had been used by Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, carried out the shootings.

The government argues that the iPhone is a crucial piece of evidence. But civil liberties groups warn that forcing companies to crack their own encryption endangers the technical integrity of the Internet and threatens not just the privacy of customers but potentially that of citizens of any country.

On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates came out strongly on the side of law enforcement, raising the possibility of another legislative effort to require tech companies to put “backdoors” in their products.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Department of Justice was asking Apple for access to just one device, a central part of the government’s argument, which Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has said was “simply not true.”

“They are not asking Apple to redesign its product or to create a new backdoor to one of their products,” Earnest told reporters at a daily briefing.

The Department of Justice stressed in a statement on Wednesday that its request was “narrowly tailored,” and chided Apple. “It is unfortunate that Apple continues to refuse to assist the department in obtaining access to the phone of one of the terrorists involved in a major terror attack on U.S. soil.”

Most technology security experts, including many who have served in government, say technical efforts to provide government access to encrypted devices inevitably degrades security for everyone. It is an argument that has been made since the 1990s, when the government tried and failed to force tech companies to incorporate a special chip into their products for surveillance purposes.

“The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone,” Cook said in a statement on Tuesday. “But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices.”

LEGAL FIGHT

Representatives of several other tech companies did not respond to requests for comment on the ruling. Not surprisingly, however, trade groups that count thousands of software companies, smartphone makers and network security firms as members decried the government position, while law enforcement groups backed the Justice Department.

The industry was “committed to working with law enforcement to keep Americans safe” the Software & Information Industry Association said, but in the Apple case, “the government’s position is overbroad and unwise.”

The Computing Technology Industry Association said that if the order was carried out, “it could give the FBI the power to call for some sort of back end to encryption whenever they see fit.”

If the federal judge, Magistrate Sheri Pym, rejects Apple’s arguments, the Cupertino, California-based company can appeal her order to the district court, and then up the chain to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 9th Circuit is known to be pro-privacy. “The government ultimately will have an uphill fight,” said Robert Cattanach, a former Justice Department lawyer who advises companies on cyber security issues.

Farook was assigned the phone by the county health department he worked for, prosecutors said in a court filing on Tuesday. The health department had “given its consent” to authorities to search the device and to Apple to assist investigators in that search, the document said.

San Bernardino County’s top prosecutor, District Attorney Mike Ramos, said Apple’s refusal to unlock the phone was a slap in the face to the victims of the shooting and their families.

“They’d like to know details like any of us in America would like to know. Were there other threats? Were there other individuals involved?” Ramos said in a phone interview.

‘MASTER KEY’

Dan Guido, an expert in hacking operating systems, said that to unlock the phone, the FBI would need to install an update to Apple’s iOS operating system so that investigators could circumvent the security protections, including one that wipes data if an incorrect password is entered too many times.

He said that only Apple can provide that software because the phones will only install updates that are digitally signed with a secret cryptographic key.

“That key is one of the most valuable pieces of data the entire company owns,” he said. “Someone with that key can change all the data on all the iPhones.”

The notion of providing that key is anathema to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online rights group. “Once this master key is created, governments around the world will surely demand that Apple undermine the security of their citizens as well,” the foundation said in a statement.

Lance James, an expert in forensics who is chief scientist with cyber intelligence firm Flashpoint, said Apple could respond to the order without providing crypto keys or specialized tools that could be used to unlock other phones.

Apple technicians could create software that would unlock the phone, allowing the company to create a backup file with all of its contents that they could provide to law enforcement, James said.

American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Alex Abdo said the government’s request risked a “dangerous” precedent. “The Constitution does not permit the government to force companies to hack into their customers’ devices,” he said.

Apple was a topic of discussion on the presidential campaign trail on Wednesday.

Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican Party’s nomination to run in the Nov. 8 election, appearing on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” said, “I agree 100 percent with the courts – in that case, we should open it (the iPhone) up. … We have to use common sense.”

Another Republican candidate, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, called it a “tough issue” that would require government to work closely with the tech industry to find a solution. Rubio said he hoped Apple would voluntarily comply with the court order.

(Additional reporting by Megan Cassella, Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington, Steve Holland; and Dan Levine in San Francisco, Sharon Bernstein in Los Angeles; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Jonathan Weber)

Photo: A woman poses in a file photo illustration with an iPhone as she plays Candy Crush in New York February 18, 2014. Video game maker Activision Blizzard Inc said it will buy “Candy Crush Saga” creator King Digital Entertainment for $5.9 billion to strengthen its games portfolio.REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/Files

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

Tina Peters

YouTube Screenshot

A right-wing conspiracy theorist who was indicted in March on criminal charges of tampering with voting machines to try to prove former President Donald Trump's lies of a stolen 2020 presidential election on Tuesday lost the Republican primary to run for secretary of state of Colorado, the person who oversees its elections.

With 95 percent of the vote counted, Tina Peters, the clerk and recorder of Mesa County, Colorado, was in third place, trailing the winner, fellow Republican Pam Anderson, 43.2 percent to 28.3 percent.

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