Apple and the FBI have faced off in Congress over whether the firm should be forced to help the FBI access the iPhone of a terrorist in the San Bernardino case.
FBI director James Comey was first to take the stand, claiming that the debate was the “hardest issue” he’s confronted in government to balance the importance of privacy with national security in the face of the rising use of encryption tools.
“The logic of encryption will bring us, in the not too distant future, [to a situation] where all conversations and papers and effects are entirely private. There’s a lot of good about this, a lot of benefits,” he said.
“[But] there are many costs to this. Law enforcement is dependent on being able to obtain warrants to look at information. That’s the way law enforcement provides public security."
However, Comey added that the rising use of encryption makes it almost impossible to access information and communications. “What we get is unreadable. We cannot decrypt that which is covered by strong encryption,” he said.
As such, the request to force Apple to create a way into the iPhone is necessary to ensure that the data can be accessed, according to Comey.
"We are not asking to expand the government’s surveillance authority, but rather we are asking to ensure that we can continue to obtain electronic information and evidence pursuant to the legal authority that Congress has provided to us," he said.
Comey also claimed that the FBI asking for a ‘backdoor’ is wide of the mark, saying that it is more about removing a ‘guard dog’ on the door that already exists in iPhones.
“There’s already a door on that iPhone. We’re asking Apple to take the vicious dog away and let us pick the lock,” he explained.
Comey did admit that the case could set a precedent that would give the FBI powers to unlock other phones in the future, but claimed that this is not the FBI's aim and that the action the FBI is asking for would not work on newer iPhones.
"Any decision by a court is potentially useful to other courts, [although] I happen to think there are technical limits to how successful this San Bernardino technique could be given how phones have changed," he said.
In response, Apple lawyer Bruce Sewell reiterated the firm's stance that the FBI's demands are too broad and pose too many risks to citizens' safety and privacy.
"The FBI has asked a court to order us to give them something we don’t have, to create an operating system that does not exist because it would be too dangerous," he said.
"They are asking for a backdoor into the iPhone, specifically to build a software tool that can break the encryption system which protects personal information on every iPhone.
"The FBI is asking Apple to weaken the security of our products. Hackers and cyber criminals could use this to wreak havoc on our privacy and personal safety.
"It would set a dangerous precedent for government intrusion on the privacy and safety of its citizens."
Sewell also noted that, even if Apple was forced to build the backdoor, criminals could always find other ways to keep their information hidden in encrypted apps, citing the example of the Telegram messaging app.
“If Apple is forced to write a new OS to degrade the safety and security in phones belonging to hundreds of millions of innocent people it will weaken our safety and security, but it will not affect terrorists in the least,” he said.
The outcome of the case remains uncertain, but Apple was boosted on Tuesday by a ruling in a New York court that the company should not be forced to unlock an iPhone owned by a drug dealer, echoing the San Bernardino case.
The full session can be watched below.
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