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Department of Justice threatens to take Apple’s iOS source code in San Bernardino case

The back and forth between Apple and the FBI in the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone case continues to heat up, but the latest filing from the Department of Justice has it flashing a wildcard that could spell problems for Apple and other tech companies.

The case revolves around a court order, requiring Apple to create special code to help the FBI get into the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, who killed 14 people last December. Apple filed a motion to vacate, and received support from various human rights groups, privacy advocates, tech companies, and even the United Nations. You can read our full coverage here.

Related: Apple vs. the FBI: A complete timeline of the war over tech encryption

In the formal rebuttal to the Cupertino company, the Department of Justice says it could simply force Apple to hand over its source code, if the company doesn’t comply with the court order, the Guardian has found.

The threat is in response to one of Apple’s arguments that creating code for the FBI would be a burden for the company. In a footnote in the filing, the deparment says, “the FBI cannot itself modify the software on Farook’s iPhone without access to the source code and Apple’s private electronic signature.”

This claim been hotly contest by critics of the FBI’s stance, like Edward Snowden, who says it’s “bullshit” that the FBI needs Apple’s help to crack into the iPhone.

The words that followed the DOJ’s statement are what could mean trouble for Apple: “The government did not seek to compel Apple to turn [the source code and electronic signature] over because it believed such a request would be less palatable to Apple. If Apple would prefer that course, however, that may provide an alternative that requires less labor by Apple programmers.”

Related: FBI: Crucial iCloud settings on San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone are disabled

The remark sounds like a threat, and a snarky one at that. Following the threat, the department also cited a precedent that it could use against Apple in the case — what the FBI did to Lavabit.

Lavabit was a secure email service from Ladar Levison, and it was used by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Levison shut down Lavabit in 2013, and claimed it was due to government requests for live user data. Levison was sanctioned for contempt of court, according to the Guardian.

Flashing the Lavabit precedent is an interesting and scary move. We’ll have to wait and see how not just Apple, but all major tech companies respond to the Justice department’s latest threat.