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Last updated: March 2, 2016 12:35 am
The FBI and Apple on Tuesday both urged Congress to produce legislation on new encryption technologies, as they showed little sign of compromise in their ongoing war of words.
Both sides made their case at a congressional hearing on Tuesday that was sparked by the legal dispute over how to access the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino killers.
James Comey, director of the FBI, said that the introduction of enhanced encryption on smartphones was creating a new area of communication and information “that nobody else can get into”, even with a court order.
“Our job is simply to tell people there is a problem,” Mr Comey said. “If there are warrant-proof spaces in American life, what does that mean and what are the costs of that?” He added: “The tools we use to keep you safe are becoming less and less effective.”
Bruce Sewell, Apple’s chief counsel, said the company was “in an arms race with criminals, cyberterrorists and hackers”.
“There is probably more information stored on that iPhone than a thief could steal by breaking into your house,” he said. “The only way we know to protect that data is through strong encryption.”
He also angrily rebutted the FBI’s claim that stronger encryption on iPhones was part of a marketing strategy, a suggestion he said “makes my blood boil”.
“We don’t take out billboards for our security. We don’t take out ads for our encryption,” he said. “We’re doing this because we think it’s the right thing to do.”
Mr Comey admitted that a “mistake” was made in the early days of the investigation when the password to the phone’s iCloud account was reset, although he said that a successful back-up at that time would not have transferred all the data the FBI was looking for.
“We would still be in litigation because there’s no way we would have gotten everything off the phone from a back-up,” he said.
The FBI was not looking for a “backdoor” into the iPhone, as Apple has claimed, but wanted the company to “take the vicious guard dog away and let us pick the lock”.
Apple v US Q&A
What has Apple been ordered to do and why is it refusing?
Many members of the House judiciary committee from both parties were sceptical about some of the arguments put forward by the FBI. But some lawmakers also criticised Apple for asking for legislation while providing no solutions on how to balance the different demands of privacy and public security.
“You’ve come to us to ask us to do something, but you don’t know what you want us to do,” said James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican.
“All you’ve been saying is no, no, no, no.”
“What we’re asking for, congressman, is a debate on this. I don’t have a proposal, I don’t have a solution for it,” Mr Sewell said. But Mr Sensenbrenner responded that unless Apple provided some concrete suggestions, “I don’t think you are going to like what comes out of Congress.”
There is probably more information stored on that iPhone than a thief could steal by breaking into your house
- Bruce Sewell, Apple chief counsel
Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said there were other ways the FBI could try to get access to the phone — potentially by using the source code to make copies of its memory, which would then allow the agency to guess the passcode without blocking the phone.
Susan Landau, a technology expert at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said that other parts of the US government had the tools to get access to the phone without trying to guess the logon — which was the most dangerous way to override encryption because the technique could be stolen by hackers.
“The FBI needs to take a page from the NSA,” she said.
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