FBI takes encryption fight with Apple to Congress

© Mike Segar
The FBI wants to set a precedent in demanding Apple unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists, but gaining an encryption backdoor will not be the end of the world, Director James Comey told lawmakers at a hearing on worldwide threats.

Comey testified during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday, alongside National Intelligence Director James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan. Much of the World Wide Threats hearing ended up being devoted to the encryption issue.

Apple has been locked in a legal battle with the federal government over whether the FBI should be allowed to coerce the technology giant into unlocking the phone of Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters, by creating a new version of the iPhone operating system.

The Cupertino-based company says it wants to cooperate with law enforcement, but that creating such a backdoor would threaten the security of all of its customers. The FBI has asked a judge to order Apple to comply, invoking a law dating back to 1789.

READ MORE: John McAfee blasts FBI for ‘illiterate’ order to create Apple iPhone backdoor (EXCLUSIVE)

The Bureau’s heated dispute is "the hardest question I've seen in government, and it's going to require negotiation and conversation," Comey told the lawmakers.

In addition to investigating the San Bernardino shooting that resulted in the death of 14 people, Comey told lawmakers that the FBI’s role is to ensure that the public understands the “costs associated costs associated with universal strong encryption."

While Comey admitted that there are benefits of encryption and privacy, he reiterated his call for law enforcement to have a ‘golden key’ to break through encryption when a search warrant has been obtained.

"If we're going to move a world where that is not possible anymore, the world will not end, but it will be a different world than where we are today and where we were in 2014," he said.

Comey had previously stated that compelling Apple to unlock the iPhone was grounded in legal precedent, reassuring the public that it wouldn’t create any legal innovations that could threaten privacy in the future.

“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 said in a statement Sunday.

Comey apparently reversed this position at the Thursday hearing, however, telling lawmakers that the outcome of the case against Apple could “be instructive for other courts” when deciding how third parties can be legally compelled to help the government gain access to their devices.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has stated that the company is prepared to take the fight all the way to the Supreme Court if need be. The controversy has divided Silicon Valley, with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg taking Apple’s side while Microsoft founder Bill Gates backed the FBI.

Government officials across the US are also taking sides in the battle between privacy and security. The top lawyer for Maricopa County, Arizona has prevented his office from providing Apple iPhones to its employees.

"Apple's refusal to cooperate with a legitimate law enforcement investigation to unlock a phone used by terrorists puts Apple on the side of terrorists instead of on the side of public safety," Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said in a statement Thursday. "Positioning their refusal to cooperate as having anything to do with privacy interests is a corporate PR stunt and ignores the 4th Amendment protections afforded by our Constitution."