FBI Director Comey: Apple litigation is about ‘justice’

posted at 2:31 pm on February 22, 2016 by John Sexton

FBI Director James Comey published a letter Sunday evening explaining his attempt to force Apple to help the Feds gain access to the cell phone carried by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook.

The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice. Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined. We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. That’s what this is…

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. That’s it. We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land. I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that. Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn’t. But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead.

In December, Farook and his wife killed 14 people and injured 22 more in an attack they dedicated to ISIS. Farook’s work-issued cell phone was recovered by investigators but, so far, they have not been able to open it. Last week the government filed a motion to force Apple to help them gain access to the phone, but Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is firmly against doing what the government is asking.

FAQ posted on Apple’s site says there is no technical reason Apple could not create a new version of its operating system which would allow the government to crack the encryption on Farook’s phone by brute force (the government wants to be able to submit passwords to the phone electronically). However, once such software exists Apple anticipates many similar requests will follow:

Law enforcement agents around the country have already said they have hundreds of iPhones they want Apple to unlock if the FBI wins this case. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks. Of course, Apple would do our best to protect that key, but in a world where all of our data is under constant threat, it would be relentlessly attacked by hackers and cybercriminals. As recent attacks on the IRS systems and countless other data breaches have shown, no one is immune to cyberattacks. Again, we strongly believe the only way to guarantee that such a powerful tool isn’t abused and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands is to never create it.

There is one additional wrinkle in this particular case. Apple has informed the government that it would be possible to access the data on the phone by allowing it to automatically join a network, such as the one at Farook’s home. However, without any guidance from the Feds, a county employee (remember this was a county owned phone) changed the password on the phone in an attempt to gain access to it in the hours after the attack. With the password changed, the phone can no longer join the cloud automatically.

Monday the government gained an important ally in its fight to force Apple to unlock the phone. Reuters reports that a former federal judge was contacted last week by the Justice Department asking him to represent a group of victims of the San Bernardino attack. The victims wish to file a brief in support of the government case arguing they have a right to know why they were targeted by a terrorist. The number of victims involved is not known at this time but there’s no doubt having sympathetic victims of a major terror attack on U.S. soil pushing Apple to give in will make holding out on principle a more difficult position for the company to maintain.

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