Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Refuse to Choose Between Apple and the FBI

Both candidates tried to occupy a middle ground that doesn't really exist – either in the war between Apple and the FBI, or when it comes to the spread of unbreakable encryption.

Photo: Morry Gash/AP

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders was willing to pick a side Thursday in the heated battle between the FBI and Apple over the government’s demand that the company create new, less secure software to comply with a warrant.

The tech giant made headlines on Wednesday with its forceful response to a federal judge’s court order that it help the government break into an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino killers, Syed Farook.

When Democratic town hall host José Díaz-Balart asked Sanders, “Whose side are you on?” Sanders replied: “Both.”

“I am very fearful in America about Big Brother. And that means not only the federal government getting into your emails or knowing what books you’re taking out of the library, or private corporations knowing everything there is to know about you in terms of your health records, your banking records, your consumer practices,” Sanders said.

“On the other hand, what I also worry about is the possibility of another terrorist attack against our country. And frankly, I think there is a middle ground that can be reached.”

Clinton called the situation a “difficult dilemma.” She discussed some of the main concerns Apple has “about opening the door, creating what they call a backdoor into encryption.” And she pointed out that the capability could be abused by authoritarian regimes like “the Chinese, Russian, Iranian governments” who want the same kind of access.

But she concluded with a favorite law enforcement talking point: that the smart people in America can surely solve this problem and find a way to help the FBI access encrypted communications with a little brainstorming and teamwork. “As smart as we are, there’s got to be some way on a very specific basis we could try to help get information around crimes and terrorism,” she said. Technologists refer to this as the “magic pony” solution.

Try as the two candidates might, however, there really isn’t a middle ground to occupy — either in the war between Apple and the FBI, or when it comes to the use of unbreakable encryption generally.

Technologists almost unanimously agree that there’s no secure way to insert a backdoor into their products without undermining security and exposing data to criminals and hackers.

And Apple CEO Tim Cook, supported by a growing legion of cryptologists, scientists, and other tech companies, said Wednesday that acceding to the government “would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

If Apple is forced to build a new way to hack its own product, the genie would be out of the bottle — the U.S. government could ask for it to do so again, and other governments could demand the same. Apple users would no longer have confidence that their data is secure, and presumably, other companies would soon find themselves in the same position.

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