FBI Fires Back at Apple: Corporations Shouldn’t Run iPhone Unlocking Debate

FBI director James Comey says agency wouldn’t be able to “look the survivors in the eye” if it didn’t try to crack San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone

The director of the FBI took a page out of the playbook of Apple CEO Tim Cook, even though he’s fighting on the opposite team.

In a letter published late Sunday calling on the American people to pause and examine what’s really at stake, FBI director James Comey said the agency must fight to hack the passcode of an iPhone linked to the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting or investigators wouldn’t be able to look survivors in the eye or themselves in the mirror.

Comey’s plea is a response to Cook’s letter to customers last week, saying the gadget giant would defy a court order to help the unlock an iPhone used by a used by Syed Farook, one of the shooters who killed 14 people at a holiday party before they were killed by police. Cook argued that helping the FBI would create a backdoor key into anyone’s private digital data.

Comey disputed how the FBI’s investigation could endanger wider consumer privacy.

“We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land,” he wrote. “We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That’s it.”

While he stressed the specificity of the FBI’s request, Comey acknowledged that bigger issues were at stake: How to balance public safety and digital privacy, but said it was the American people who should decide, not those with “the loudest voices,” an oblique reference to Apple.

“That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living,” he wrote in a statement first posted on the blog Lawfare and later released by the FBI as a release, adding that the FBI shouldn’t control the debate either. “It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before.”

He noted that the FBI is doing exactly what it should in the matter: Pursue its investigation as doggedly as it can under the law.

“We can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead,” he said.

Apple declined to comment.

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