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Decision against Apple would give FBI ‘dangerous’ power

Kenneth Corbin | March 3, 2016
Friction between law enforcement and tech sector on full display as FBI makes its case for tools to allow it to break into San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone.

Apple dug in on its resistance to the government's demand that it help unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, warning yesterday that complying with that court order would introduce a major new security vulnerability that would put millions of customers at risk.

"This is not about the San Bernardino case. This is about the safety and security of every iPhone that is in use today," Bruce Sewel, Apple's senior vice president and general counsel told members of the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing on encryption and privacy.

"We're being asked to create a method to hack our own phones," Sewell said. "The FBI has asked a court to order us to give them something that we don't have, to create an operating system that doesn't exist. The reason it doesn't exist is because it would be too dangerous. They are asking for a back door into the iPhone, specifically to build a software tool that can break the encryption system which protects personal information on every iPhone."

FBI argues that technology creates warrant-proof spaces

Ahead of Sewell's testimony, FBI Director James Comey was on hand to make the government's case, telling lawmakers that access to devices such as the phones of criminals and victims is an essential tool in law enforcement investigations. The increasing use of encryption threatens to create "warrant-proof spaces" where a judge's order to access a phone or computer would be rendered meaningless because the contents would be, as Comey put it, "gobbledygook."

"I think technology [has] allowed us to create zones of complete privacy, which sounds like an awesome thing until you really think about it, but those zones prohibit any government action under the Fourth Amendment or under our search authority," Comey said.

"Until this, there was no closet in America, no safe in America, no garage in America, no basement in America that could not be entered with a judge's order," he said. "We now live in a different world, and that's the point we're trying to make here."

Comey said that wrestling with the balance between digital privacy and public safety has been "the hardest issue I've confronted in government," but insisted that the FBI's request in the San Bernardino shooting is unique to that case and would not create a so-called back door that would give the government broad access to millions of iPhones, as critics of the bureau's position have suggested.

The FBI is trying to compel Apple to develop software that would turn off the auto-erase feature on shooter Syed Farook's phone that permanently disables it after 10 unsuccessful login attempts. With that feature gone, as well as the one that puts a delay in between unsuccessful login attempts, the FBI estimates that it could crack the phone through a brute-force attack in 26 minutes.

 

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