FBI Director James Comey claims the agency doesn’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set loose a master key to devices like the iPhone.
The comment Sunday by Comey on Lawfare Blog comes as both Apple and the government last week appeared to have pulled out all the stops to defend their stands on an FBI demand in a court that Apple provide the technology to help the agency crack the passcode of a locked iPhone 5c used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the terrorists involved in the attack in San Bernardino, California, on Dec. 2.
The FBI is concerned that without the workaround from Apple, it could accidentally erase data, while trying to break the passcode, because of the possible activation on the phone after 10 failed tries of an auto-erase feature. “We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly,” Comey wrote.
Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ordered Apple on Tuesday to provide assistance, including by providing signed software if required, to help the FBI try different passcodes on the locked iPhone 5c running iOS 9, without triggering the auto-erase feature in the phone.
Comey said the phone may or may not hold the clue to finding more terrorists. “But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead,” he said, adding that new technology is creating a “serious tension” between the two values of privacy and safety.
In a letter to customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook had said the government was asking for a backdoor to the iPhone. “The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor,” he wrote.
His pro-privacy stand has received backing from tech companies and civil rights groups, but the opposite view that the company should help as it is being asked for assistance only with one phone, and that too a device used by a deadly terrorist, has also got support from some quarters.
Comey had previously said that encryption was making FBI investigations difficult because terrorists were communicating using encrypted tools, but said in October the U.S. administration would not seek legislation at the point, and would work on a compromise with industry.
On Sunday, he appeared to appeal to the people of the U.S. on the contentious dispute with Apple, saying without elaboration that a conflict between privacy and safety should not be resolved by companies or by the FBI, but by the American people. “We shouldn’t drift to a place—or be pushed to a place by the loudest voices—because finding the right place, the right balance, will matter to every American for a very long time,” Comey wrote.