Apple and the FBI took their battle over encrypted smartphones to Congress on Tuesday, with lawmakers quizzing the FBI’s chief about efforts to unlock a terrorist’s phone and the company defending its refusal to help.

Share story

The fight between Apple and the FBI landed at Congress on Tuesday, as skeptical lawmakers quizzed the FBI’s chief about efforts to unlock encrypted smartphones and the company defended its refusal to help the agency probe a phone used by a terrorist.

FBI Director James Comey said the bureau is simply asking Apple to remove some security features so that investigators can hack into the iPhone used by one of the shooters in the December massacre in San Bernardino, Calif.

“Essentially we’re asking Apple to take the vicious guard dog away, let us try and pick the lock,” Comey said.

Lawmakers took up the issue of smartphone encryption a day after Apple notched a win in New York, where a U.S. magistrate judge denied the government’s bid to force the company to help it gain access to another iPhone, one that belonged to a drug dealer.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Earlier, the FBI won a court order that Apple help it gain entry into the phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, though the company has challenged the order.

Complying with the government “would create a risk for everybody who owns an iPhone that their data could be compromised,” Apple’s general counsel Bruce Sewell told the committee.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the panel’s top Democrat, criticized the FBI for turning to the courts rather than Congress.

“The government’s assertion of power is without limiting principle and likely to have sweeping consequences — whether or not we pretend that the request is limited to just this device, or just this one case,” Conyers said of the California case. “Why has the government taken this step and forced this issue?”

Apple has argued in U.S. District Court in California that the federal government is overstepping its authority.

Comey told lawmakers that “there are no demons in this debate” but good people with different points of view as encryption spreads to everyday technology. “Everyone should understand: If there are warrant-proof spaces in America, what does that mean?” Comey said.

Speaking in San Francisco, Attorney General Loretta Lynch more bluntly questioned Apple’s insistence that it has the right to refuse cooperation.

“Do we let one company decide this issue for all of us?” Lynch asked at a cybersecurity conference. “Do we want one company to say this is how investigations are going to be conducted and no other way?”

Apple’s Sewell told lawmakers that helping the FBI “will weaken our safety and security but it will not affect the terrorists.”

Apple is in an arms race with “criminals, cyberterrorists and hackers,” he said. Sewell called for more debate before Congress, but didn’t offer proposed legislation.

“I don’t think you’re going to like what comes out of Congress,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

“We’re talking about the iPhone of a dead terrorist,” Sensenbrenner said. Investigators “would like to get to the bottom of it, and you’re resisting it,” he said.

Apple has made a decision about an iPhone used by the killer, said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. He paraphrased the company’s position as: “There’s no governmental interest compelling enough for us to allow you to try to guess the password of a dead person’s phone.”

“I just find it baffling,” Gowdy said.

Comey said the country needs to find a balance.

“It’s seductive to talk about ‘privacy is the ultimate value,’ ” Comey said. “In a society where we aspire to be safe, to have our families safe and our children safe, that can’t be true. We have to find a way to accommodate both.”

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., asked whether end-to-end encryption might create a “zone of impunity” where “bad things could happen.”

Comey agreed, noting that the Constitution allows searches of homes with appropriate oversight, leading him to think the document’s writers “couldn’t have imagined any box or storage area or device that could never be entered.”

“That’s a world we’ve never lived in before in the U.S.,” Comey said. “It has profound implications.”

Congress may be able to influence the debate over encryption at the appeals-court level — though it already may be too late for the New York case, decided Monday, and probably won’t come in time for the California suit, where the judge will begin considering all arguments at a March 22 hearing.

“How do we deploy ever stronger, more effective encryption without unduly preventing lawful access to communications of criminals and terrorists intent on doing us harm?” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asked in opening the panel’s hearing.