Clickability tracking pixel

FBI Admits Requesting Access to Additional Smartphones

FBI Director James Comey warned that encryption poses a monumental threat to public safety, as it renders court-approved search warrants generally useless.

by Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle / March 2, 2016
FBI Director James Comey as he testifies in front of the House Judiciary Committee over Apple's iPhone Encryption. C-SPAN

(TNS) -- FBI Director James Comey told Congress on Tuesday that if the government succeeds in forcing Apple Inc. to unlock an iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino shooters, the case would establish a precedent that could be used to gain access to data in many more iPhones, an acknowledgement that runs counter to the agency’s earlier contention that the case is limited to a single device.

Testifying under oath to the House Judiciary Committee, Comey said he does not know how many phones state, local and federal law enforcement authorities want to open for investigative purposes, but said it’s “a lot.” The case involving Apple will set a precedent, whoever wins it, he said.

Apple, represented by general counsel Bruce Sewell, argued that the FBI’s demand that the Cupertino company write code to defeat the iPhone’s encryption would put all smartphones at risk and threaten Americans’ privacy. Apple wants Congress to write legislation to resolve the issue.

Out of Apple’s control

Sewell pointed to what he called a “pernicious” encryption app called Telegram and others that criminals can download from sources outside the company’s control. “If Apple is forced to write a new operating system to degrade the safety and security in phones belonging to tens or hundreds of millions of innocent people, it will weaken our safety and security but it will not affect the terrorists,” Sewell said.

A court order to force Apple to give the FBI data access from an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters has opened a national debate over encryption and privacy that both sides agree has enormous consequences as more of people’s private information — from their personal correspondence to financial data — is stored on mobile devices. The Obama administration has deferred to the FBI, even though its own advisory committee on cybersecurity concluded that the government should not try to “subvert, undermine, weaken or make vulnerable” encryption software.

FBI director’s warning

Congress is divided across party lines, pitting civil libertarians in both parties against those favoring safety and security. Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and Darrell Issa, R-Vista (San Diego County), co-wrote an opinion piece published Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times siding with Apple. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., strongly supports the FBI in the case, while Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has called for a boycott of Apple over its refusal to comply with the judge’s order without a fight.

Comey acknowledged that Apple is already a step ahead of the government, noting that the newer iPhone 6 contains no way for law enforcement to “pick the lock” on the phones because there is no door to open. He warned that the trend poses a monumental threat to public safety, and he wanted Americans to be aware that the traditional tools on which law enforcement at all levels has long relied — court-approved search warrants — are being rendered useless as traditional places to store information migrate to encrypted electronic devices.

“The logic of encryption will bring us to where all our conversations and all papers and effects are entirely private so that no one can ... look at our stuff without our agreement,” Comey said. Law enforcement calls the phenomenon “going dark.”

Comey acknowledged that there is “a lot to love” in being able to keep private and protected “our ideas, our innovations, our secret thoughts, our hopes, our dreams,” but there are also costs.

Limit on warrants

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., invited to the hearing the family of a Baton Rouge woman, Brittney Mills, eight months pregnant, who was shot and killed on her doorstep by an unknown gunman, a case Comey repeatedly referred to during the hearing. Mills kept a personal diary on her iPhone, and the family wants it opened, but it remains inaccessible to police.

Until now, Comey said, no basement, no garage, no home, no physical hiding place, has been completely off limits to a search warrant. “Privacy is awesome,” he said, “but stopping this kind of savagery and pedophilia and murder” and other crimes is necessary.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. also testified, telling the committee his office has 205 iPhones related to criminal cases that it wants to unlock, and there are dozens more in other jurisdictions. But law enforcement can’t break through the phones’ security locks.

Cybersecurity Professor Susan Landau of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute of Massachusetts testified that the FBI is still using 20th century technology in a 21st century world and urged the agency to adopt more high-tech strategies to combat crime, pointing to what national intelligence agencies are doing as an example.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Chris Finan, a former Obama administration cybersecurity official who is now the chief executive of Manifold Technology, a Menlo Park company that builds encryption technologies, said the conflict is already leading technology firms to create what he called “doomsday machines” that nobody can hack — not even the companies that make them.

Demands on users

“Remember the movie ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ where it’s taken out of the hands of humans because of their folly,” Finan said. If forced by the government to write code to allow devices to be hacked, he said, “what Apple’s going to have to do is take themselves completely out of the loop to the point where they’re not even able to hack with tools like this that they could be compelled to create.”

Finan warned that such a development “will have disastrous implications for data security, because rather than being able to automatically update phones, it’s going to basically require users to consent to every little update. That’s where I think this is headed. That’s the second-order effect that nobody is talking about in the administration.”

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs