The Cable

FBI Director: ‘You Watch Too Much TV if You Think We Can Just Hack an iPhone’

Jim Comey tries to turn down the temperature on the latest fight between Silicon Valley and Washington.

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With Apple and the FBI locked in a legal battle over accessing the iPhone of a San Bernardino shooter, some critics of the bureau have wondered why it has gone to court at all. Couldn’t the government just hack the fairly old iPhone 5c?

That line of thinking is “the product of people watching too many TV shows,” FBI Director Jim Comey told lawmakers on Thursday. “Sometimes we are not as attractive or technologically talented as we appear on TV.”

Viewers of those TV shows can certainly be forgiven for thinking that the FBI might possess such a capability. The CIA has, after all, invested huge resources into figuring out ways around Apple’s security measures, and it would stand to reason that other branches of the U.S. government has invested in similar capabilities. And now Apple is responding: According to a Wednesday New York Times report, the company plans to include security features on its next phone that would make it impossible to comply with court orders like the one issued in the San Bernardino case.

Appearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for its annual hearing on worldwide threats, Comey tried to lower the temperature on an acrimonious dispute with the California tech giant that has sparked a national debate on the extent to which the government should get access to encrypted data — and its power to compel tech companies to provide it.

Apple, despite having refused to comply with this court order, has been highly cooperative with the FBI in the San Bernardino case, Comey said Thursday. The company has helped the government access other data belonging to shooter and held by Apple but felt the government went too far in its request to write new software circumventing security features, according to company statements.

How to balance privacy interests with law enforcement imperatives in the dispute with Apple the represent the “hardest question I’ve seen in government,” Comey said.

That’s quite a statement for the FBI boss, who famously stood up to the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program in 2004. With his boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, hospitalized with pancreatitis, it fell to Comey, his deputy, to reauthorize the program. When he learned the full extent of the wiretapping and the extreme interpretation of executive authority that it relied on, Comey balked and refused to sign the order.

Now, Comey finds himself accused of undermining the basic security structures of the Internet, an accusation he attempted to fend off on Thursday. “I love encryption. I love privacy,” he protested to lawmakers. But the willingness and ability of tech companies to comply with valid court orders, he argued, can also save “whole neighborhoods” from terrorism.

It’s that kind of rhetoric that has privacy advocates accusing Comey and the FBI of using the San Bernardino attack, which saw 14 people killed by husband-and-wife shooters with apparent sympathy for the Islamic State, to establish a precedent that would greatly increase the government’s ability to compel companies to open their servers to law enforcement — and possibly undermine security for users.

On Thursday, Comey appeared to contradict himself on the issue of whether he hopes a ruling in favor of the FBI will set a precedent for other investigations and allow the government to compel tech companies to unlock encrypted communication. Comey said that the ruling — regardless who wins — “will be instructive for other courts” but later insisted that he isn’t seeking a precedent in the case.

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Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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