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U.S. Files Point-by-Point Rebuttal Against Apple in iPhone Fight

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The Apple store at Grand Central Terminal in New York. Credit Wang Lei/Xinhua, via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration argued on Thursday that “no single corporation” — even one as successful as Apple — should be allowed to flout the rule of law by refusing to cooperate with law enforcement officials.

In a filing in United States District Court in Los Angeles, the Justice Department said Apple should be compelled to help the F.B.I. break into the iPhone used by a gunman in the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting last year. The company should not be allowed to hide behind what prosecutors said were diversionary tactics in the court of public opinion, the Justice Department said.

Apple and its supporters “try to alarm” the court by invoking bigger debates over privacy and national security, the Justice Department said. “Apple desperately wants — desperately needs — this case not to be ‘about one isolated iPhone.’ ”

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The technology company has been locked in a major legal battle against law enforcement officials over privacy and security.

The government’s filing was a point-by-point rebuttal of a motion that Apple filed two weeks ago opposing a federal court order requiring it to break into the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino attackers. Apple had argued that the court order violated the company’s First and Fifth Amendment rights, and said the government’s request oversteps the All Writs Act.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

In the filing on Thursday, prosecutors argued that they have sought a “modest” step in the case and that the courts, the executive branch and Congress share the power to decide how best to balance between public safety and privacy.

The fight between Apple and the government has been brewing since mid-February, when Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the Federal District Court for the Central District of California ordered Apple to create and deploy an alternative operating system that would help law enforcement agents break into the iPhone in the San Bernardino case.

Apple publicly opposed the order, igniting a standoff with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department. The fight has fueled a debate over privacy and civil liberties versus security and has been a flash point in the growing tension between technology companies and the government over who can access private customer data and under what circumstances.

Law enforcement officials like James Comey, the F.B.I. director, say that tools such as strong encryption technology hurt his organization’s ability to capture criminals. Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has said that the government’s request would harm civil liberties, society and national security. He said that he was prepared to take the fight to the Supreme Court.

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