FBI Director James Comey reversed himself on Thursday when he acknowledged that the outcome of a California court order compelling Apple to write new code to unlock a terrorist’s phone could “be instructive for other courts” when interpreting how far third parties have to go in helping the government hack their products.
Just as recently as Sunday, Comey wrote that “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.”
Comey was really just admitting the obvious. Law enforcement agencies are already lining up to exploit what they consider a possible new tool.
Apple CEO Tim Cook, interviewed on ABC News on Wednesday night, said that he is fighting the government’s request because it would open the way for government to have companies write code to defeat their own security. “It is, in our view, the software equivalent of cancer,” he said.
“If a court can ask us to write this piece of software, think about what else they could ask us to write,” he said. “Maybe it’s an operating system for surveillance. Maybe it’s the ability for law enforcement to turn on the camera. I mean, I don’t know where this stops.”
Comey continued to insist that the case, in which Apple is being told to write code to unlock an iPhone belonging to San Bernardino killer Syed Rizwan Farook, is “unlikely to be a trailblazer because of the technology.” He quoted “experts” who told him that the order only applies to one phone on one operating system.
And he said the code would be safe, and unable to infect other phones “in the wild,” because Apple has been “pretty darn good” at protecting its code in the past when law enforcement asked it to help get data from phones.
In reality, however, Apple has never generated a new code like this to help law enforcement — and technologists say there is a real danger that malicious hackers could steal it.
Apple is currently fighting at least 12 other government requests to help extract data from locked iPhones, all of which are being pursued by prosecutors citing the All Writs Act, an 18th-century law that directs companies to assist the government as long as doing so doesn’t cause undue burden. That’s very different than simply serving a warrant on a company for information it already has.
“Judges on both coasts are going to have to interpret what is the meaning of the All Writs Act,” Comey said.
Top photo: FBI Director James Comey.