Capitol Hill was seen raving about security, technology and terrorism on Tuesday when Apple’s fight against FBI’s request to unlock an iPhone owned by a terrorist in the San Bernardino case was put under scrutiny by the House of Judiciary Committee. This arm of the government handles matters which relate to the enforcement of law and order in the US.
It took five and half exasperated hours, a determined FBI director, and an even more determined Apple representative, an encryption expert, and a room full of congressmen who spoke passionately about the case to end without any definitive conclusion. The result – Apple stands strong in defiance of the government.
FBI Director James Comey refers to this case as one of the most complex cases that he has had to deal with. He explained to the committee that his organization have been very concerned about the rise in warrant proof spaces – technology that restricts access to data even without the correct permissions from the court. Comey suggests that if the country moves towards embracing such technology then the United States is going to turn into a place where we have never lived before.
Comey said that there were a lot of other cases that depended on Apple for unlocking the iPhone. To be precise, 205 locked iPhones are currently held by the New York Police Department alone. Comey however emphasized that FBI’s request is for a single case and a singular iPhone.
However, when Comey was asked if the San Bernardino can set precedent for other cases which deal with locked iPhones in the future, he said, “Sure, potentially.”
Apple’s lead counsel, Bruce Sewell, represented the Silicon Valley giant in this hearing. This is the first time that Apple has been put under scrutiny at this level because of its refusal to comply with FBIs request. Sewell’s constant argument was that this is not for a single phone.
He emphasized on the fact that Apple’s reasons for not complying to FBI’s orders is not time or money that will have to be spent on executing the request, instead the concern rises above all of this to the burden of compromising the security of Apple’s customers.
His answer to the question why this can turn into a burden was that the issue is not just about one phone and Apple’s fears that it will not be contained to just one phone either. Apparently, Comey has already confirmed that Apple is right in thinking so.
The congressmen’s outlook
The congress was divided in their viewpoint of the case. While some strongly supported the FBI, others considered Apple’s steps to be sensible.
South Carolina Congressmen, Trey Gowdy was very vocal about his thoughts on Apple’s lack of cooperation. Between fierce exchanges with Apple’s representative, Bruce Sewell, Gowdy eventually arrived at the point that if Apple cannot comply with FBI’s request then the company should at least share how they are prepared to help in this case.
Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner spoke on the same lines scolding Apple for its audacity to demand Congress to do something regarding the case without offering any solution itself.
Republican congressman Darrell Issa who is a favorite among tech enthusiasts because of his forthright opposition to numerous bills which were deemed anti-internet, made it very difficult for Comey to blame Apple for not supporting the FBI. Issa spoke passionately about FBI inadequacy as the organization chose to depend on companies like Apple instead of investing in bringing people who have the expertise to circumvent Apple’s security.
Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren supported the need to keep encryptions secure without creating a key that will create a vulnerability. She cited examples to strengthen her viewpoint about the hearing. She regarded FBI’s demands to weaken Apple’s robust security system a “fool’s errand” which strongly understated cybersecurity.
Prof. Landau’s Inputs
Prof Landau – an independent cryptology expert – argued with considerable force that it was impossible for Apple to carry out FBI’s demands without any repercussions. She said that the creation of a key for Syed Farook’s phone will lead to numerous other requests to Apple to carry out the same thing on other devices. Eventually, a security breach through interception or a rogue employee will make the entire thing vulnerable.
Prof Landau encouraged the FBI to invest heavily in becoming smarter rather than coercing Apple to making its products less secure. Because a weakened iPhone will mean that criminals will move to a more secure method to communicate using apps that offer stronger encryptions that what Apple has to offer. And if that were to happen, then the wishes of the Congress would not matter a jot.