WASHINGTON — In an investigation involving guns and drugs, the Justice Department obtained a court order this summer demanding that Apple
turn over, in real time, text messages between suspects using iPhones.
Apple’s response: Its iMessage system was encrypted and the company could not comply.
Government officials had warned for months that this type of standoff was inevitable as technology companies like Apple and Google embraced tougher encryption. The case, coming after several others in which similar requests were rebuffed, prompted some senior Justice Department and F.B.I.
officials to advocate taking Apple to court, several current and former law enforcement officials said.
While that prospect has been shelved for now, the Justice Department is engaged in a court dispute with another tech company, Microsoft
. The case, which goes before a federal appeals court in New York on Wednesday and is being closely watched by industry officials and civil liberties advocates, began when the company refused to comply with a warrant in December 2013 for emails from a drug trafficking suspect. Microsoft said federal officials would have to get an order from an Irish court, because the emails were stored on servers in Dublin.
The conflicts with Apple and Microsoft reflect heightened corporate resistance
, in the post-Edward J. Snowden era, by American technology companies intent on demonstrating that they are trying to protect customer information.
"It’s become all wrapped up in Snowden and privacy issues," said George J. Terwilliger III, a lawyer who represents technology companies and as a Justice Department official two decades ago faced the challenge of how to wiretap phone networks that were becoming more digital.