FBI versus Apple: Lawmakers call FBI request to break Apple encryption an overreach

The case is drawing attention as it is being perceived as a watershed event.
The case is drawing attention as it is being perceived as a watershed event.

In testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Apple reiterated many of the points it has been making public on its website and in the press since the FBI demanded the company unlock the iPhone belonging to the gunman in the San Bernardino terrorist shooting: Unlocking the device would set a dangerous precedent.

Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell testified that complying with the FBI's request that the company write software that would enable the FBI to workaround Apple's security measures would not only dilute the security of all its devices but also would set a dangerous precedent for the entire tech industry, according to Wired. He read his opening statement off of an iPad Pro.

The case is drawing attention as it is being perceived as a watershed event, not merely pitting a giant tech corporation against a law enforcement authority, but as a broader conflict between the urgency of security in police investigations and consumers' rights to privacy

During questioning in yesterday's five-hour-long hearing, FBI Director James Comey changed his tone from previous testimony and concurred that his agency's demand could "potentially" set a precedent: “Any decision of a court about a matter is potentially useful to other courts,” he said. Previously, the FBI argued that its request centered on just the one phone owned by Syed Farook, who is alleged – along with Tashfeen Malik, to whom he was married – to have killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December. The FBI says it needs access to data on the phone to investigate possible links with militant groups.

"We're missing 19 minutes before they were finally killed by law enforcement," Comey said during his testimony. "The answer to that might be on the device."

An expert witness countered Comey's argument. Susan Landau, a mathematician and professor, stated, “The tension isn't between privacy versus security. It's about security versus security.”

Landau, a former senior staff privacy analyst at Google and author of Surveillance or Security?, validated Apple's argument that setting a precedent, as in this case, would weaken Apple's capacity to safeguard the personal information of its users. “What happens is you develop a routine, and then it becomes a process that's easy to subvert,” she said.

Apple's Sewell pressed his company's position regarding the integrity of encryption, while he also reiterated a point made in a brief filed last week that this matter does not belong in the courts, particularly based on a Colonial-era statute, the All Write Act, on which the FBI is largely basing its legal argument.

His point was given strength because on Monday a New York state judge denied a motion in a similar iPhone unlocking case, ruling that the FBI did not have legal authority to demand Apple disable the security measures of an iPhone obtained during a drug investigation.

Addressing Comey, John Conyers (D-Mich.), the dean of the House of Representatives, stated: "Given...that Congress has explicitly denied you that authority so far, can you appreciate our frustration that this case appears to be little more than an end run around this committee?"

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