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US, Apple Spar Over Unlocking Phone in Terrorism Probe

  • Cindy Saine

FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 1, 2016, before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on 'The Encryption Tightrope: Balancing Americans' Security and Privacy.'

FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 1, 2016, before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on 'The Encryption Tightrope: Balancing Americans' Security and Privacy.'

The U.S. Justice Department and technology giant Apple took their standoff over a locked iPhone to Congress Tuesday, answering questions before lawmakers about the effort to force Apple to help U.S. investigators access a device used by one of the San Bernardino, California terrorists.

In a congressional hearing, lawmakers expressed skepticism toward the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey's arguments over why officials need a court to force Apple to build a software tool that will help them access the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife, killed 14 people and injured 22 others in the December mass shooting. .

Comey told the panel that the FBI needs greater access to digital communications to keep Americans safe from child abductors, sexual predators and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.

Legal Precedent?

A number of committee members criticized Comey for turning to the courts instead of Congress to get help with the investigation into the shooting. Democratic ranking member John Conyers blasted the FBI for asking a federal magistrate to give them special access to smartphones. Conyers said the House Judiciary Committee is the correct place to begin the high stakes debate over the tradeoff between security and privacy. Conyers added he “would be deeply disappointed if it turns out that the government is found to be exploiting a national tragedy to pursue a change in the law.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte questioned Comey on whether this San Bernardino case would set a legal precedent, and Comey conceded that it “potentially” would.

Republican Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said he finds it baffling that Apple is refusing to help the FBI unlock the password of a deceased terrorist who was using a iPhone owned by San Bernardino county. Farook was a county health inspector and local authorities have already given permission for investigators to access the phone he was provided as part of his job.

Apple's 'Vicious Guard Dog'

Apple’s General Counsel Bruce Sewell also testified at the same hearing, but appeared in a separate panel after Comey left. Sewell told lawmakers Apple has no sympathy for terrorists, but said the U.S. government is asking Apple to create a “backdoor” which would threaten the privacy of all smartphone users. Comey told lawmakers: “There is already a door on that iPhone. We’re asking Apple to take the vicious guard dog away and let us pick the lock.”

Tuesday’s hearing is likely only the first of many in Congress on the complex and long-standing debate over the conflict between digital privacy rights and national security.

A magistrate judge in California ordered Apple to comply with the demand, but the outcome is uncertain pending the company's appeal. The hearing before the House Judiciary Committee came as Apple won a case on government-ordered phone intrusion on Monday that is similar to the Farook case.

In New York, a different magistrate judge ruled that the Justice Department cannot force Apple to unlock the iPhone of a suspected drug dealer.

Judge James Orenstein said the government's demand "is unavailable because Congress has considered legislation that would achieve the same result but has not adopted it."

A Justice Department spokesman expressed disappointment in the New York ruling and said the department plans to appeal.

Surveys Show Support for Government

In the Farook case, the FBI wants to check his phone to see if the American-born Muslim was in contact with others about the early December attack he carried out with his Pakistani-born wife, Tashfeen Malik. Both were killed hours later in a shootout with police.

If the California judge's order is upheld, U.S. law enforcement officials say they will ask the company to unlock other Apple devices involved in criminal investigations.

One survey in the United States showed that a majority of Americans favors the government's position in the dispute.