SAN FRANCISCO — Apple on Tuesday emphasized its opposition to a court order requiring it to help unlock an iPhone for law enforcement purposes, saying in a new legal brief that the government’s “methods for achieving its objectives are contrary to the rule of law, the democratic process and the rights of the American people.”
The company’s argument quickly drew a response from the Justice Department, which upbraided Apple for trying to stand above the law. “The Constitution and the three branches of the federal government should be entrusted to strike the balance between each citizen’s right to privacy,” a Justice Department spokeswoman, Emily Pierce, said in a statement. “The Constitution and the laws of the United States do not vest that power in a single corporation.”
The latest volleys between Apple and the Justice Department represent a final cementing of positions in a case that has pitted the world’s largest company against the government, which wants to extract data from an iPhone used by a gunman in the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack last December. Apple has refused to comply with the order and its filing on Tuesday was the last before a crucial hearing in the case, which is scheduled for March 22 before Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the Federal District Court for the Central District of California.
The case has set off a fierce debate over privacy and security, with heated arguments between Apple and the government. Apple has contended that the court order could have grave consequences for digital security and privacy. The Justice Department has said Apple’s inability to get into its smartphones has created a system tailor-made for criminals.
For the last few weeks, the two sides have stumped for their positions before Congress and in the court of public opinion. Each side has asked Congress to decide under what circumstances the government may see private customer data. President Obama said last week that law enforcement authorities must be legally able to collect information from smartphones and other electronic devices.
In its legal filing Tuesday, Apple tried to move the debate from an intense and personal tone and refocus attention on what it said it sees as the matter at hand, a fight over civil liberties and data privacy. The issue cannot be weighed without taking into account the larger national debate over data privacy concerns, Apple said.
“The Justice Department and F.B.I. argue that this court must decide this issue in a vacuum,” the company said in its brief. “The court not only can consider this broader context, it must do so.”
Apple’s filing on Tuesday also reiterated points the company made last month when it asked the court to drop its order, contending that the request would “inflict significant harm — to civil liberties, society and national security — and would pre-empt decisions that should be left to the will of the people through laws passed by Congress and signed by the president.”
The filing emphasized the constitutional arguments that Apple has made, specifically that the court order violates the company’s constitutional right to free speech and subjects it to “arbitrary deprivation” of its liberty by the government.
Apple also repeated its argument that the government was overstepping its bounds by seeking to force the company to break into the iPhone using a statute called the All Writs Act, which dates to 1789. Apple has said the government is interpreting the law too broadly, and re-emphasized that point on Tuesday.
“The All Writs Act cannot be stretched to fit this case,” Apple said.
The filing was less fiery than the brief filed in the case last Thursday by the Justice Department, which suggested Apple was refusing to comply with the government while secretly conducting a different, special relationship with China. Apple’s general counsel, Bruce Sewell, has said that the accusations were baseless and cited unnamed sources.
Apple’s brief on Tuesday, while less angry in tone, did seek to put to rest what its lawyers called the government’s most inflammatory claims about the company’s relationship with China and its use of privacy as a marketing tool. To buttress its defense, Apple cited declarations from Craig Federighi, its senior vice president for software engineering, and Robert Ferrini, its senior director for worldwide advertising and planning.
“Apple uses the same security protocols everywhere in the world,” Mr. Federighi said in his declaration filed Tuesday. “Apple has never made user data, whether stored on the iPhone or in iCloud, more technologically accessible to any country’s government. We believe any such access is too dangerous to allow.”
Mr. Ferrini also disputed the government’s contention that Apple was using privacy as a marketing tool. Of Apple’s approximately 1,793 advertisements worldwide, he said, “not a single one has ever advertised or promoted the ability of Apple’s software to block law enforcement requests for access to the contents of Apple devices.”
Any decision by Judge Pym is likely to be appealed and could reach the Supreme Court, which has issued a mixed set of rulings in recent years on the scope of the government’s powers to collect evidence.
“We look forward to responding to Apple’s arguments before the court next week,” said Ms. Pierce of the Justice Department.