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FBI director: 'We don't want to break anyone's encryption' in San Bernardino iPhone case

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FBI director James Comey has written a brief op-ed for Lawfare laying out the organization's thinking over Apple's resistance to unlocking an iPhone linked to the San Bernardino shootings. Comey attempts to allay fears that the FBI's request is designed to make it easier to gain access to iPhones in the future, arguing that it "isn't about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice. Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined. We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law."

"The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve," Comey continues. "We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist's passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That's it. We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land. I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that. Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn't. But we can't look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don't follow this lead."

"Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn't."

Comey's assertions aren't going to allay the fears of anyone concerned about what would happen if Apple were to create security-bypassing software that subsequently fell into the wrong hands. "It's not about just stealing one tool," iPhone security expert Jonathan Zdziarski told The Verge last week. "There's a lot going on in software like this, and having a direct tap into how Apple can disable functions moves [attackers] along at light speed." And while Comey says the litigation isn't intended to set a legal precedent, it seems unlikely that future FBI investigations wouldn't make similar requests.

While making it clear which side of the debate he's on, Comey finishes the op-ed by urging Americans to "participate in the long conversation we must have about how to both embrace the technology we love and get the safety we need." For Apple, Comey's words and the opposition of some San Bernardino victims will come as a reminder of what they're up against in the court of public opinion.