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Apple v/s FBI At Congressional Hearing : Congress Terms FBI’s Demand As “A Fool’s Errand”

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Apple and FBI finally took their ‘privacy vs security’ battle in front of Congress during a House committee hearing. The hearing entitled The Encryption Tightrope went on for over 5 hours with both sides presenting their arguments in front of the committee.

James Comey, Director of the FBI, began his testimony questioning the strong encryption technologies being used by the companies these days which are threatening the security of the country by interrupting in the investigations.

I believe that the logic of encryption will bring us, in the not too distant future, to a place where all of our papers and effects are entirely private. Our job is simply to tell people there is a problem. If there are warrant-proof spaces in American life, what does that mean and what are the costs of that?

said Comey.

He further added that the encryption measures of Apple were like a “vicious guard dog” interfering in their job of ensuring public safety.

We’re asking Apple to take the vicious guard dog away and let us pick the lock. It’s not their job to watch out for public safety. That’s our job,”

said Comey.

He also rejected the claims that FBI could access the phone by exploiting the vulnerabilities and by consulting agencies such as NSA (National Security Agency). He said that they had already tried to take the help of every external agency but could not break into the iPhone’s security.

“If we could have done this quietly and privately, we would have done it,” Comey told the committee. Many members of the committee, however, questioned the FBI motives saying that it was trying to circumvent Congress by launching a lawsuit against Apple.

“Can you appreciate my frustration with what appears to be little more than an end-run around this committee?” asked Democratic congressman John Conyers. Another representative Zoe Lofgren called FBI demands to weaken Apple’s security a “fool’s errand” that undermined cybersecurity.

On the other hand, Bruce Sewell, Apple’s Chief Counsel strongly rebutted the claims on encryption made by the FBI Director and said that Apple was in an arms race with criminals, cyber terrorists, and hackers. He added that there was more information stored on an iPhone than a thief could steal by breaking into a house.

He also rejected the claims made by FBI that it was a part of the marketing strategy of Apple to publicise the high level of encryption and security on its devices.

We don’t put up billboards that talk about our security. We’re doing this because we think protecting the privacy and security of hundreds of millions of iPhone users is the right thing to do. To say that it’s a marketing issue or it’s somehow about PR diminishes what should be a very serious conversation.

said Sewell.

On the question of FBI claim that the demand was just one time and only for one iPhone, Sewell said that building software tool would not affect just one iPhone but weaken the security of all the devices.  And surprisingly Comey partly agreed to this statement against the previous claims made by FBI as well as Bill Gates.

When asked by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia if the decision on this matter would affect the future proceedings from the FBI or another agency, Comey remarked, “Sure, potentially. Any decision of a court about a matter is potentially useful to other courts.”

Comey also admitted the FBI’s mistake of resetting the password of phone’s iCloud account although he maintained that the successful backup also would not have transferred all the data that FBI was looking for.

As I understand from the experts, there was a mistake made in that 24 hours after the attack where the [San Bernardino] county, at the FBI’s request, took steps that made it hard—impossible—later to cause the phone to back up again to the iCloud,

he said.

However, it was not that Apple found a unanimous support from the committee. This was because Apple was unable to suggest any concrete measures for the problem at hand and simply refused to unlock the phone.

“You’ve come to us to ask us to do something, but you don’t know what you want us to do. All you’ve been saying is no, no, no, no,” said James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican. To this Sewell simply responded that they just want a debate on the issue and there was no solution or proposal they could suggest.

Sensenbrenner however, warned that unless Apple provided some concrete suggestions they would not like the solution which comes out of Congress.

The other members of the committee were also apprehensive and more concerned about crafting a legislation in direct response to the San Bernardino case. Many members urged against both “a law hastily written in anger or in grief” and having “the rules written by Russia or China”.

“We say that bad cases make bad law.This is clearly a bad case,” said Representative Raul Labrador (R-ID) during the hearing. Another member remarked, “I would be deeply disappointed if it turns out that the government is found to be exploiting a national tragedy to pursue a change in the law.”

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