WASHINGTON — Some victims and affected families in the mass shootings in southern California will file court papers in support of a U.S. magistrate judge’s order that Apple Inc. help the FBI hack into a locked iPhone as part of the terrorism investigation, a lawyer and others said Monday.
A Los Angeles attorney, Stephen Larson, said he represents at least several families of victims and other employees he declined to identify but who were affected by the shootings. He said the U.S. attorney in the case, Eileen Decker, sought his help. Larson said he will file a brief supporting the Justice Department before March 3.
The victims “have questions that go simply beyond the criminal investigation … in terms of why this happened, how this happened, why they were targeted, is there anything about them on the iPhone — things that are more of a personal victim” view, Larson said.
George Valasco, whose 27-year-old niece Yvette Velasco was killed in the shooting, said his brother — Yvette’s father — agreed to be named in the brief.
“Frankly it’s difficult to understand why Apple would not jump at the opportunity to help uncover whatever information the phone may contain,” according to a family statement. “We’re not talking about an ordinary case here — this is an act of terrorism, where 14 Americans lost their lives, and many more were seriously injured. It’s potentially a matter of national security, where other Americans’ safety could be at risk.”
An appeal by victims in the case gives the Justice Department additional support in a case that has sparked a national debate over digital privacy rights and national security interests. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym in California ordered Apple last week to assist investigators by creating specialized software that would let the FBI rapidly test random passcode combinations to try to unlock the iPhone and view data stored on it.
The county-issued iPhone 5C was used by Syed Farook, who with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people at an office holiday party in December before they died in a gun battle with police. The government said they had been at least partly inspired by the Islamic State.
The couple physically destroyed two personal phones so completely that the FBI has been unable to recover information from them.
Farook had worked as a county health inspector. Larson said the government has a strong case because of Farook’s diminished privacy interests as a “dead, murderous terrorist” and because the phone was owned by his employer, the county government. “You’re weighing that against the interest of enforcement in an investigation and the victims and their interest in obtaining this knowledge,” he said.
Gregory Clayborn, whose 27-year-old daughter, Sierra, died in the attack, said he hasn’t been asked to join the case but believes Apple is obligated to unlock the phone.
“This makes me a little bit angry with Apple,” Clayborn said. “It makes me question their interest in the safety of this country.”
Clayborn said he owns Apple products and understands why the company wouldn’t want the FBI to have the software to access anyone’s phones. But unlocking one for the FBI, he said, is “as simple as it gets.”
Larson, a former U.S. district judge, said he knew Pym, the magistrate, and described her as an “extraordinary jurist” when she argued in his courtroom as a then-federal prosecutor.
Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook acknowledged in a letter to employees earlier Monday that that “it does not feel right” to refuse to help the FBI, but he said to do so would threaten data security for millions by creating essentially a master key that could later be duplicated and used against other phones.
“We have no tolerance or sympathy for terrorists,” Cook wrote in an early morning email. “When they commit unspeakable acts like the tragic attacks in San Bernardino, we work to help the authorities pursue justice for the victims.”
Cook’s email came hours after FBI director James Comey said in an online post that Apple owes it to the San Bernardino victims to co-operate and the FBI “can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead.”
Apple’s supporters planned to protest the FBI’s demands on Tuesday evening outside Apple’s stories in about 50 cities in the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Hong Kong. In Washington, people were being asked to protest outside the FBI’s headquarters.
According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, 51 per cent of Americans said Apple should unlock the iPhone to assist the ongoing FBI investigation, while 38 per cent said Apple should not to ensure the security of other users’ information. Eleven per cent gave no opinion. The telephone survey was conducted Feb. 18 through Feb. 21 among 1,002 adults.