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Apple/government court clash has key constitutional implications

An ongoing high-profile battle between federal government investigators and California-based Apple Inc. has grabbed the close attention of legal scholars and constitutional law pundits across the country.

And, we suspect, it will soon garner close scrutiny from millions of Americans who might be more closely affected by the goings-on than many of them readily realize.

The overriding focus of inquiry in today's post is government power, namely, the ability of criminal law authorities to use their considerable might and resources to engage in what are essentially spying activities that target the general public.

If that seems scary, well, it is. We touched upon the subject in our January 14 blog entry, noting therein that many citizens might "understandably react with alarm" to what can sometimes seem to be the unbridled powers of government agents to gather data intended as private. That information is often secured through the use of sophisticated and often unchecked surveillance technologies.

As many of our readers might already be aware, the Apple-government battle centers on a single smartphone, which the government believes might harbor information relevant to the recent and horrific mass fatal shootings in San Bernardino. The phone belonged to one of the shooters.

Agents can't crack its passcode and are demanding that Apple do it for them.

The company's response: Forget it.

Moreover, Apple -- which portrays the matter in terms of a government assault on the constitutional privacy rights of every American -- is willing to take the matter up the judicial ladder. Some commentators expect the case to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unquestionably, it is important. The government argues that the matter is narrowly confined to a single phone and that it is seeking only a one-time exception for a purpose that has national security implications.

Conversely, Apple argues that the code that safeguards its phones from unwanted access merits First Amendment free-speech protection under the Constitution.

The case goes far beyond the narrow dimensions that government lawyers posit, say Apple officials. Rather, it is starkly focused upon the delicate balance that must be maintained between the government's ability to investigate crime, on the one hand, and citizens' fundamental right to privacy, on the other.

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