Reps Skeptical of FBI in Encryption Fight Against Apple

Judiciary Committee members understand the precedent involved.


Swiping left on Comey?
Credit: Yutaka Tsutano / photo on flickr

One thing was certain at this afternoon's House Judiciary Committee hearing on "The Encryption Tightrope: Balancing Americans' Security and Privacy": The members of Congress in attendance understood full well that the case between the FBI and Apple was not about "just one phone."

FBI Director James Comey came to testify before the committee about his agency's efforts to use the courts to conscript Apple into writing code that will weaken the security of the work iPhone of San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook so that the FBI can attempt to break into it and recover the data held within.

The represenatives who spoke during the first segment of the hearing—both Democrat and Republican—seemed skeptical of whether the FBI should be able to force Apple's cooperation. And despite his insistence that this was just about Farook's single phone, Comey was repeatedly put in a position where he had to acknowledge that this case would set a precedent for forcing Apple's assistance (and therefore other tech companies' assistance) in weakening cybersecurity, not just by the FBI but by law enforcement agencies across the country.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the Ranking Member of the committee, pointed out in opening comments that a number of government officials, current and former, such as former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, are opposed to weakening encryption for the benefit of helping law enforcement catch criminals. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) needled Comey on whether "bad actors" in other countries would be able to get independent encryption sources to better protect them from the feds. Comey acknowledged that they could, but didn't seem to think it was likely, which perhaps is true if you were trying to get data from phones from run-of-the-mill crooks and not organized terrorists. But we're not supposed to think of stuff like that! This is an isolated case!

Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) tag-teamed Comey back to back. Issa pushed on whether the FBI truly had exhausted their own abilities to try to break into the phone before trying to draft Apple (Comey insisted that they had). Lofgren pointed out that whatever the U.S. decided as far as protecting or weakening encryption would end up becoming the foundation for international norms. The two of them also joined up for a bipartisan op-ed at the Los Angeles Times today calling for Congress to remain control of debate (not the FBI or the courts) and to keep encryption strong, concluding:

Instead of weakening privacy protections, lawmakers should support legislation — like that which passed the House with overwhelming support on three separate occasions — prohibiting government-mandated backdoors that intentionally undermine and undercut the development and deployment of strong data security technologies.

You can read statements from the witnesses at the hearing (including Apple's general counsel) here.

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  1. OT: Dude must have had something really important to do


    1. Or … maybe some not so friendly dudes were going to be waiting for him for some unfinished business.

  2. This is rather surprising. Color me suspicious.

    1. His wife was going to marry someone else?

      1. +1 Pater Familias

    2. Meh. They’ll make for a good show and then pass the Keep Our Phones Safe Act which essentially grants the feds guaranteed access in emergency situations only, while simultaneously redefining emergencies as anything more than a misdemeanor.

    3. Maybe they have polling that tells them going against Apple is a big loser?

      1. I haven’t seen that though. Most Americans are pussies.

    4. You know what is suspicious?

      Niki hasn’t come by to trash the horrendous run-ons.

  3. Here’s a quote from an IEEE Spectrum article on this, and my questions:

    It was also reported that the password for the iCloud account was reset by an IT employee of San Bernardino County Department of Public Health while the phone was in the FBI’s possession, cutting off a possible path Apple suggested for getting the data without unlocking the phone. It is unclear as to whether he was doing this under his own volition or under FBI request.

    This seems crucial and under-reported to me. Why would the IT person do such a thing, unless he was intentionally sabotaging the FBI investigation, or had been ordered by the FBI to do so? And why would he have been ordered to do that, unless the FBI wanted an excuse to force Apple to create a backdoor? I hope someone can explain this.

    1. And why would he have been ordered to do that, unless the FBI wanted an excuse to force Apple to create a backdoor?

      Asked and answered, I believe.

      1. I’ll go with incompetence on this one.

        FBI Dude to IT Dude “Hey, the phone is password protected. Can you reset the password?”

        And given such levels of incompetence, they should definitely not be entrusted with a key to everyone’s phone.

        1. The other issue I don’t get: OK, IT resets the password. But how could IT not know what they reset it to?

    2. Why would the IT person do such a thing

      Are you stupid? This “IT person” is a government employee, otherwise known as a bureaucrat. Their standard reply for “why” is always “procedures were followed.”

      1. IT people generally aren’t stupid, and they knew the phone was in possession of the FBI. So, why reset the password then?

  4. Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) tag-teamed Comey back to back.

    I approve.

    1. Issa failed -badly- at holding Obama and Shrillary accountable for a variety ethical failings while he served as Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

      I’m glad he showed up for this fight but forgive me for feeling skeptical he can finish it.

    2. Is this like what Jennifer Connelly did in that slightly terrifying drug-related movie?

      1. Thanks for burning that image of congress critters engaged in that particular act into my brain.

        1. Yes, sir! You are welcome!

      2. That movie was slightly terrifying, and it is partially responsible for a drug-filled needle having never entered my arm (the biggest reason: needles).

        1. Yeah, I’m in the same boat, Crusty. I’d try a lot of things (and not just drugs), but I draw the line at intravenous anything.

      3. Is this like what Jennifer Connelly did in that slightly terrifying drug-related movie?

        The Rocketeer?

        1. Of course! What else?

        2. She was smoking hot, but what’s his name is just not manly enough to be either Errol Flynn or Bond.

  5. What if Apple produces the key to crack the phones only if they get to store it on Hillary Clinton’s server?

  6. I assume there will be some sort of grand bargain where Justice leaves Apple alone and Loretta Lynch, Hillary Clinton and the IRS investigations get dropped. And then in 2017, the Republican Congress passes a law forbidding companies from encrypting phones in a way that an owner cannot retrieve their data. Which coincidentally is henceforth the State in criminal investigations.

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