March 30, 2020
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Rep. Ted Lieu has sent a letter to FBI Director James Comey asking the bureau to drop its legal efforts to force Apple to circumvent its own security measures so the FBI can access data on an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino massacre.
Lieu (D-Calif.), who has a background in computer science and is also a former prosecutor, said in the letter that the issues in the case should not be decided “by either corporations or the FBI.” The letter to Comey was in response to an open letter that Comey had written earlier this month regarding the Apple case, which has spurred a heated debate in not just the security and privacy communities, but also in the general public.
The controversy centers on the FBI’s desire to get access to data on an iPhone 5C that was used by Syed Farook, one of the alleged shooters in the Dec. 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino. The bureau recovered the phone from a car searched during the investigation and soon realized that it was protected by a passcode. After asking Farook’s employer, which owned the phone, to reset the iCloud password, the FBI still couldn’t access the phone, so it went to Apple for help. Apple executives say they provided all of the information they could, legally and technically, but could not give the FBI access to the data on the phone, because it didn’t have the passcode either.
In his letter to Comey, Lieu said that the legal basis for the order is antiquated.
The FBI then went to court and eventually got an order compelling Apple to help it bypass the passcode protection. Apple CEO Tim Cook then said in a public letter that the company would not comply with the order because it amounted to the FBI asking for a backdoor in iOS, something Apple considered “too dangerous” to do. The FBI has since asked the court to force Apple to comply with the order, and Cook and Apple have continued to stand their ground.
In his letter to Comey, Lieu said that the legal basis for the order, known as the All Writs Act, is antiquated and shouldn’t have any bearing on a case like this one.
“Using the court process and an antiquated law to coerce a private sector technology company is especially inappropriate in this case because Congress has been actively debating the very issue of the appropriateness of mandating ‘back doors’ and other ways to weaken encryption,” Lieu said in the letter.
Saying that the All Writs Act was in no way designed with the complexities of today’s technology and privacy issues in mind, Lieu urged Comey to withdraw the FBI’s Motion to Compel Apple to comply and allow the issue to be discussed publicly.
“If the magistrate judge’s strained interpretation of the All Writs Act were upheld to give the FBI the right to force a private sector company to weaken its encryption defenses in this case, the precedent would open the floodgates for all future prosecutors to make the exact same demands in any case involving a smartphone that the government cannot decrypt,” the letter says.
“Let Congress, stakeholders, and the American people debate and resolve these difficult issues, not unelected judges based on conflicting interpretations of a law passed 87 years before Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.”
Image from Flickr stream of Bill Bradford.