Modern field guide to security and privacy

FBI chief says government lacks ability to crack iPhone

At a House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, FBI Director James Comey said that no agency in government had the ability to access the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters – a notion disputed by legislators and Apple's lawyers. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
FBI Director James Comey testified on Capitol Hill in September on cybertheats. Mr. Comey has warned that strong end-to-end encryption on consumer devices can harm terrorist and law enforcement investigations.

FBI Director James Comey said his agency needs Apple's help to access the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters because the government doesn't have the technical ability to break into the phone.

"We have engaged all parts of the US government to see if anybody has a way – short of asking Apple to do it," Mr. Comey said Tuesday at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee.

But lawmakers who grilled Comey for nearly three hours appeared skeptical that the FBI could not find a way to get into an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who helped plot the December terrorist attack in California that left 14 people dead.

"You have a multibillion dollar budget," Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California told Comey. "Is the burden so high on you that you could not defeat this product either by getting the source code and changing it or through some other means?"

Comey said the government has not tried to access the source code for the device confiscated after the San Bernardino shootings.

Tuesday's testimony comes amid a growing legal standoff between Apple and the federal government over Mr. Farook's phone. While a California judge ordered the tech giant to help the FBI access data on the phone, Apple filed a motion last week to dismiss that order on the grounds that the request was overly burdensome on the company and would irreparably harm the security of all of its customers.

Apple has called on Congress to help resolve the debate around the ability of law enforcement agencies to access data on iPhones.

At Tuesday's hearing, Apple’s top in-house lawyer argued that building special password-busting software for the FBI that break into one phone would open the door to other law enforcement agencies asking for the same tool. What's more, he said, it could fall into the hands of malicious actors who could use it to crack other phones.

"Essentially we are throwing open the doors and allowing the very act of decryption to take place," said Bruce Sewell, Apple’s senior vice president and general counsel.

On Monday, Apple won a significant legal victory in a related case. A federal magistrate judge in New York denied a US government request to access data from a locked iPhone captured in connection with a 2014 drug case.

Judge James Orenstein said the 1789 All Writs Act statute, also the basis for the federal government’s case in San Bernardino, does not give the investigators sufficiently expansive authority to extract iPhone data.

The FBI's Comey defended the right to privacy during the hearing – and argued that the law enforcement officials only sought access to Farook’s phone. But he worried that without the technology to access iPhones and other encrypted devices, investigators might lack the tools to hunt down terrorists and criminals.

"We’re moving to a place where there are warrant-proof places in our lives," Comey said. "That’s a world that we’ve never lived in before in the United States. That has profound consequences for public safety."


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