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Here's What You Need To Know About Apple, FBI Showdown In D.C.

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 2/03/2016 Casey Williams
ATHENA IMAGE © Anadolu Agency via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

After weeks of tussling in the press, Apple’s dispute with the FBI over data privacy went before Congress on Tuesday.

FBI Director James Comey and Apple lawyer Bruce Sewell, among others, appeared before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee to offer testimony related to Apple's refusal earlier in February to help the FBI unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. 

At the center of the hearing was the question of whether or not the case would set a lasting precedent for how law enforcement agencies obtain data from tech companies. 


While Comey reiterated his position that the San Bernardino case is unique, he conceded that the outcome of the dispute could influence future cases.

"If you succeed in this case, will the FBI return to the courts in future cases to demand that Apple and other private companies assist you in unlocking secure devices?" Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) asked Comey.

"Potentially, yes," Comey responded. 

Comey's statement amended the FBI's earlier position that the San Bernardino case is "unlikely to be a trailblazer" in establishing legal precedent.

Comey doubled down on the FBI’s claim that widespread encryption limits the ability of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to prevent and solve crimes.

Encryptions creates “warrant-proof spaces in American life,” Comey told the committee. 


Bruce Sewell, Apple's general counsel and senior vice president of the company's legal and government affairs, said the iPhone maker is committed to helping law enforcement investigate crimes -- so long as investigations do not require Apple to compromise the privacy of iPhone users. 

“ The FBI has asked a court to order us to give them something we don’t have," Sewell told lawmakers. "To create an operating system that does not exist — because it would be too dangerous.”

Weakening iPhone privacy protections so the FBI could access data on the San Bernardino shooter's handset would amount to creating a "backdoor" into Apple's mobile software, Sewell said. 

“That backdoor would not affect just one iPhone," he added. "The tool we’re being asked to create will work on every iPhone.”

Comey denied that the FBI was asking for a backdoor into the iPhone, saying the agency was simply asking Apple to “take the guard dogs away and let us pick the lock.”


Committee members also questioned Sewell and Comey about whether weakening iPhone security would prevent terrorists from using encrypted messaging systems to evade law enforcement.

Comey noted that terrorists would likely be able to hide data from law enforcement even if Apple were to make it easier to break into locked iPhones. When asked if anti-encryption laws would stop people from using illegal encryption methods, Comey responded, "It would not."

Sewell agreed, telling committee members that, if Apple complies with the FBI's request to help unlock the San Bernardino iPhone, “it will weaken our security, but it will not affect the terrorists."

Both Sewell and Comey said that the debate should to continue in good faith. 

There are “no demons in this debate," Comey said. “The company’s not evil, the government’s not evil,” he added. “We care about the same things.”

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