WASHINGTON – The policy issues raised in the Justice Department’s dispute with Apple Inc. over a locked iPhone represent the “hardest question I’ve seen in government and it’s going to require negotiation and conversation,” FBI Director James Comey said Thursday.
“It’s really about who do we want to be as a country and how do we want to govern ourselves,” Comey told the House Intelligence Committee.
A week ago, a federal magistrate in California directed Apple to help the FBI hack into a phone used by one of the assailants in the December shootings in San Bernardino, California. Apple was expected to file a formal objection on Friday.
Comey reaffirmed what he posted in a blog Sunday night – that the Justice Department was not trying to send a message or set a precedent by going to court to obtain access to the phone.
Instead, he said, “It’s about trying to be competent in investigating something that is an active investigation.”
Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, told ABC News that it would be “bad for America” if his company complied with the FBI’s demand and that he was prepared to take the fight to the Supreme Court.
Comey said Apple had been “very cooperative” in the months leading up to the court fight and that there have been “plenty” of negotiations between the two sides. But at some point, Apple reached a point where it was not willing to “offer the relief the government was asking for.”
Comey acknowledged that last week’s order from Magistrate Sheri Pym could help guide other courts considering the same issue in the future. But he rejected Apple’s assertion that the order could create a slippery slope affecting millions of other iPhone users. Comey said he had been told by technology experts that the combination of the phone and operating system are “sufficiently unusual that it’s unlikely to be a trailblazer because of technology being the limiting principle.”
Apple has argued that doing so would make other iPhones more susceptible to hacking by authorities or criminals in the future. Comey insisted that the code the FBI was asking Apple to create would work only on that one phone and would be retained by Apple.
“The idea of it getting it out in the wild and working on my phone or your phone – at least the experts tell me – is not a real thing,” he said.
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