The San Bernardino iPhone unlocking court battle is over, and FBI Director James Comey said he's glad for it. He also said the very public battle had an "unintended benefit," and lamented the fact it became an emotional issue—right before he added fuel to that fire by equating the encryption fight to the emotions he sees in the gun control debate.
Director Comey says public debate was a surprise benefit of San Bernardino iPhone case
Director Comey shared his comments with law students at Catholic University earlier this week. The case involved a court order the FBI obtained to force Apple to create a hackable version of iOS so agents could see the encrypted contents of San Bernardino mass shooter Syed Farook's iPhone. The FBI chose to make the case public and tried to paint Apple as a cold and heartless corporation more worried about its own profits than combating terrorism.
Apple fought the order in court, claiming the government didn't have the authority to force a company to create tools to defeat the encryption on its own products. Apple said complying with the order would set a dangerous precedent where other companies would be forced to do the same, ultimately destroying privacy and security for individuals as well as the United States.
The FBI dropped the fight after buying a still undisclosed hack to bypass the iPhone's lockscreen passcode. Director Comey doesn't want to share the technique with Apple because the company would patch the security flaw.
Despite the fact that the FBI chose to make this a public fight—even including a talk show appearance by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch defending the FBI's position—Mr. Comey said there was an "unintended benefit" in that it sparked a public conversation about balancing security and privacy. It's hard to imagine no one at the FBI expected to see any form of debate on the topic after gift wrapping and dropping it into the public's lap.
Mr. Comey went on to say emotions on the topic are running high and that talking about encryption in absolutes, or posting comments on Twitter, isn't helping the debate. He went on to ramp up those emotions more, adding,
Some of the emotion that I've received around this issue reminds me sometimes—the absolutist and slippery slope arguments—remind me of some of the rhetoric we hear in the gun debate. It's the same kind of rhetoric and passion in this conversation.
There is some irony in Director Comey equating protecting encryption to the gun control debate considering the San Bernardino shooters used guns to kill 14 people and injure 22 more before dying in a shootout with police.
The problem with Director Comey's concern over discussing encryption in absolutes is that there isn't any other way to approach the topic: either we have encryption, and the privacy and security it brings, or we don't. When weaknesses and backdoors are intentionally added to devices and services that offer data encryption, they're available to everyone regardless of whether or not they're a legit government agency, hacker, or criminal.
Intentionally punching holes through the security encryption offers creates weaknesses anyone can exploit, which clearly doesn't fit with the "no absolutes" narrative Director Comey is pushing. His "unintended benefit" comment is a hard pill to swallow, too, because the FBI had to know making its fight with Apple public would lead to the heated debate we're seeing now. In other words, the public debate was very much intended when it began, and it still is today.
When the fight over forcing Apple to hack into Mr. Farook's iPhone went public, the FBI said, "Just this phone, just this once." Considering the ongoing fights in other courts to do the same, and the Department of Justice's commitment to push for backdoors into our private data, that statement was totally disingenuous just as the "unintended benefit" statement is now.
[Thanks to ABC News for the heads up]