FBI director calls encryption a “vicious guard dog” in Apple hearing
Representatives from Apple and the FBI have given evidence to the US House Judiciary Committee, during a five-hour hearing that saw FBI director James Comey face strong opposition from lawmakers.
Apple and the FBI have locked horns over whether or not the tech company should help the government agency to unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook. On a larger scale, the two bodies are at odds over the future of cybersecurity, and arguably the balance of control when it comes to national security.
First to testify was Comey, who compared digital encryption such as that used by Apple to a “vicious guard dog”.
“We’re asking Apple to take the vicious guard dog away and let us pick the lock,” Comey said. “It’s not their job to watch out for public safety. That’s our job.”
(Above: FBI director James Comey)
Comey went on to say that the FBI was highly concerned about “warrant-proof spaces”, and that tech companies such as Apple shouldn’t be permitted to create such spaces through impenetrable encryption.
In response, California congresswoman Zoe Lofgren said that the alternative to strong encryption was a world without privacy: “Once you have holes in encryption, the rule is not a question of if, but when those holes will be exploited and everything you thought was protected will be revealed,” she said.
Comey also admitted that the FBI has made “a mistake” in the 24 hours following the San Bernardino attack, as the organisation changed a password on the gunman’s iPhone 5c that locked the data away. “We took steps that made it impossible later to cause the phone to back up again to the iCloud,” said Comey.
“No, no, no, no”
Following Comey was Bruce Sewell, Apple’s general counsel. Sewell backed up his case by calling on cryptology expert Professor Susan Landau, who argued that there was no way the FBI’s request could be carried out safely.
Sewell himself accused the FBI of using a court order as “a way to cut off the debate”.
“This is a security versus security issue, and we believe that balance should be struck by Congress,” Sewell attested.
(Above: Apple’s general counsel Bruce Sewell and Professor Susan Landau)
Wisconsin Republican representative James Sensenbrenner provided some of the hearing’s harshest words against Apple, accusing the company of raising problems without offering solutions.
“All you’ve been saying is no, no, no, no,” Sensenbrenner said. “You’ve told us what you don’t like. You haven’t told us one thing about what you do like. When are we going to hear about what you do like, so Apple has a positive solution to what you are complaining about?”
A debate in Congress
Several lawmakers during the hearing followed Apple in calling for answers to be provided by the US Congress, not judges.
Democratic congressman John Conyers said that Congress should debate the issues of encryption and government access to data “even if the dialogue does not yield the results desired by some in the law-enforcement community”.
Whether or not a debate in Congress takes place remains to be seen. The case continues.