Two weeks ago, the FBI called Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, with a jarring message: the agency wanted Apple to help them hack an iPhone.

Apple refused.

The request stepped up a level on 16 February when a federal magistrate ordered Apple to help the FBI unlock a single iPhone – the phone belonging to one of the killers in the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Apple again refused.

But this carefully planned legal battle has been months in the making, US officials and tech executives told the Guardian, as the government and Apple try to settle whether national security can dictate how Silicon Valley writes computer code.

Both sides expect the ensuing legal battle to have far-reaching implications that will touch on encryption, law enforcement, digital privacy and a 225-year-old law from America’s post-colonial days.

“The law operates on precedent, so the fundamental question here isn’t whether the FBI gets access to this particular phone,” said Julian Sanchez, a surveillance law expert at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute in Washington. “It’s whether a catch-all law from 1789 can be used to effectively conscript technology companies into producing hacking tools and spyware for the government.”

Apple and the government, observers and people close to the case said, want to set a legal precedent about where digital security ends and national security begins after nearly two years of hearings, open letters and Washington-Silicon Valley shadowboxing. Speculation has already begun about how far both sides are willing to go in appealing unfavorable rulings.

The politics are tricky. Apple is popular and code is protected by America’s free-speech law.Privacy advocates planned to gather at Apple stores across the US in support of the iPhone maker.

On the other hand, one technology executive Wednesday acknowledged, “it’s an incredibly sympathetic case” from the governments’s perspective.

“Apple chose to protect a dead Isis terrorist’s privacy over the security of the American people,” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas wrote in a statement.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a impassioned statement: “We have no sympathy for terrorists. But now the US government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

The House judiciary committee plans to hold a hearing on the matter 1 March and has invited Apple, a person familiar with the matter said.

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