FBI head insists that Apple hack request be complied with

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The director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation has defended his legal fight with Apple over encryption, saying the case involving the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone was “quite narrow” and not intended to set a precedent.

In the latest volley of an escalating war of words between the US authorities and the world’s most valuable company, James Comey made an emotional appeal to Apple and the US public in a blog post on specialist legal site Lawfare.

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“We can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead,” he said. “We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land.”

The FBI director wrote that the tension between privacy and safety “should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living.”

Instead, he continued, the matter should be settled “by the American people” and called for a “long conversation” on the matter.

Mr Comey’s blog post comes ahead of Apple’s legal response later this week to a case that began last Tuesday when a judge in California ordered the iPhone maker to create tools that would help the FBI unlock a device used by Syed Rizwan Farook before he killed 14 people in December.

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has refused to comply with the order, calling the demand for what he called a “back door” into the iPhone an “over-reach” by the authorities that has “chilling implications” for its customers’ privacy. Several other Silicon Valley companies, including Google and Facebook, have supported Apple’s position.

On Friday the US Department of Justice and Apple traded blows over both the intent behind the order and the handling of the investigation. The DoJ accused Apple of putting concerns about its “marketing strategy” ahead of its legal obligations and said Mr Cook had made “numerous mischaracterisations” of the government’s case.

Apple executives denied that allegation and implied that the FBI had bungled an opportunity to gain access to data stored on Farook’s iPhone, by changing the iCloud password in the hours after he was killed in a shootout with officers.

That password reset prevented the iPhone from sending its data to Apple’s servers through an automatic back-up, where it could be accessed by the company and the FBI through a standard legal process.

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The FBI on Saturday denied wrongdoing in that situation, saying the iCloud reset was a “logical next step” in its investigation and “does not impact Apple’s ability to assist with the court order”.

“It is unknown whether an additional iCloud back-up of the phone after that date — if one had been technically possible — would have yielded any data,” the FBI said.

Mr Comey on Sunday night attempted to step over the row about the iCloud back-up and appealed to the broader principles at stake in what he called a “heartbreaking” case of terrorism.

“The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice,” he wrote in his post, which does not directly mention Apple or the iPhone by name.

Apple must file its legal response to the judicial order by Friday, which is also the day the company holds its annual shareholder meeting at its Cupertino headquarters.

One survey late last week showed that US public opinion is finely balanced on the issue. An online poll of 1,093 US adults by SurveyMonkey found that 51 per cent agreed with the FBI while 49 per cent took Apple’s side. Even among iPhone owners, a narrow majority backed the FBI in the dispute.

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Henry Sapiecha

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