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FBI Director: California iPhone Case Will Be 'Instructive' for Courts

Lawmakers questioned the nation’s top intelligence officials about a court order being contested by Apple, as well as the larger debate over encryption.
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Lawmakers questioned the nation’s top intelligence officials about a court order being contested by Apple, as well as the larger debate over encryption, at a congressional committee hearing on Thursday.

Apple has been locked in a battle with the federal government over whether the company should be compelled to help the FBI gain access to an iPhone used by San Bernardino massacre shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. Federal agents say that the phone, which is owned by the county health department, could contain information about the weeks immediately preceding the attacks.

“The latest challenges the government has met in gaining access to an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists is emblematic of the growing problem posed by encryption,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Read More: Solid Support for Apple in iPhone Encryption Fight, Poll Says

The hearing to provide an overview of threats to American security from around the world gathered the heads of the CIA, FBI and the deputy director of the NSA, as well as the directors of national intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

FBI Director James Comey avoided some questions about the possible implications of the tool the FBI is asking Apple to create by saying that he is neither a lawyer nor an expert in the technology involved.

“Whatever the judge’s decision is in California … will be instructive for other courts, and there may well be other cases that involve the same kind of phone and the same operating system,” Comey said.

“Apple has been very cooperative, we just got to a place where they were not willing to offer the relief the government was asking for,” the FBI director said.

Comey suggested that the fast-changing nature of technology may mean that the tool being requested by the FBI in the San Bernardino case could quickly become outdated. The New York Times cited unnamed sources in a report on Wednesday saying that Apple engineers are already at work on security features that would make a technique like the one at issue in the California case obsolete.

“I do think the larger question is not going to be answered in the courts, and shouldn’t be, because it’s really about who do we want to be as a country and how do we want to govern ourselves,” Comey said in response to questions on Thursday. “The San Bernardino litigation is not about us trying to send a message or establish some precedent.”

Read More: Should Apple Help Customers Hide Personal Info from the Government?

Apple has said that is has cooperated with law enforcement in the past when legally required to do so, and that the company offered its technical expertise in the San Bernardino case. Apple chief executive Tim Cook has said however that if the company is forced to create a new iOS to help the FBI access this one phone, that tool could become a powerful weapon in the hands of criminals or foreign countries.

Apple is expected to file its response to the California court order later this week.

Responding to a question about whether or not the FBI has the technical ability itself to bypass Apple’s security features and access the iPhone, Comey said that idea is ““the product of people watching too many TV shows.”