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FBI Chief: San Bernardino iPhone Case Could Set A Legal Precedent For Encryption

While FBI Director James Comey acknowledged Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee that forcing Apple to unlock the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone may lead others to seek 'guidance' from the case, he saw 'technical limitations' to the approach.

FBI Director James Comey acknowledged Tuesday that forcing Apple to unlock the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone could set a precedent for dealing with encryption in the future.

Representatives from Apple and the FBI took their places in front of the House Judiciary Committee to discuss the government's efforts in unlocking an iPhone belonging to one of the terrorists behind the San Bernardino attacks last year.

"I happen to think … there are technical limitations to how useful this particular San Bernardino technique will be, given how the phones have changed, but sure, other courts, other prosecutors, other lawyers for companies will look to that for guidance or how to distinguish it," Comey said during the hearing.

[Related: RSA President Amit Yoran: The Security Industry Needs A Wake-Up Call]

The hearing comes after a California judge last month ordered Apple to unlock the iPhone, which was used by one of the assailants in the December mass shooting event.

Apple does not have access to the data on its phones, so the FBI requested the company create a new version of its operating system, eliminating some security features, to install on the iPhone in question.

There is no previous precedent for the government to ask for this particular kind of access, CEO Tim Cook said in a letter to customers in February, and complying with the request would force Apple "to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack" and create a backdoor with no guaranteed limit on its use, he wrote.

Previously, Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple, which has provided default encryption on its iPhones since 2014, could use a tool that would plug into the phone and allow it to respond to search warrant requests from the government.

The hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, made up of two Republicans and 16 Democrats, is meant to enable U.S. lawmakers to better understand both points of view.

Apple representatives, for their part, testified during the hearing that the FBI's move could weaken the security of Apple products and undermine encryption efforts.

’Hackers and cybercriminals could use this to wreak havoc on our privacy and personal safety,’ said Bruce Sewall, senior vice president and general counsel of Apple at the hearing. "It would set a dangerous precedent for government intrusion on the privacy and safety of its citizens."


Executives in the technology industry across the country, including Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, are also voicing support for Apple in its stand against encryption "backdoors."

Amit Yoran, president of computer and network security company RSA, stressed the importance of encryption at the annual RSA Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday.

"Some policy proposals, like weakening encryption, are so misguided as to boggle the mind," said Yoran. "In an era where cybersecurity is consistently cited as the single greatest threat to our way of life, above terrorism and all else, how can we possibly justify a policy that would catastrophically weaken our infrastructures?"

Partners also take a similar stance in standing behind Cook during the debate, saying encryption could be undermined should Cook give in to the FBI's demands.

In a poll on CRN.com, 76 percent of the respondents said they are siding with Cook on the iPhone battle between the FBI and Apple.

"I do believe there should be a warrant to get to iPhones, there should be some sort of due procedure," said Steven Kantorowitz, president of CelPro Associates, an Apple partner based in New York. "There is so much personal content and private data in people's phones these days. I think iPhone users have an expectation of privacy."

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