Lynch Challenges Apple Refusal Over Access to Suspects' iPhones

Lynch: Encryption Debate About More Than Just One Company
  • Attorney general addresses fight with company over encryption
  • `Do we let one company decide this issue for all?' Lynch asks

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch tried forcefully to shoot down Apple Inc.’s arguments for refusing to help unlock a dead terrorist’s iPhone, as the Obama administration and the technology industry waged a public battle on two coasts.

“Do we let one company decide this issue for all of us?” Lynch said Tuesday in San Francisco. “Do we want one company to say this is how investigations are going to be conducted and no other way?”

Lynch’s remarks with Emily Chang of Bloomberg Television at the RSA cybersecurity conference were her most expansive to date in the two-week fight over whether Apple should assist an FBI investigation into the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attacks. They also came a day after a New York judge sided with Apple and handed the U.S. a setback by rejecting a request to force the company to crack into an iPhone in a unrelated drug case.

QuickTake Apple

The debate over law enforcement’s authority to access encrypted communications is raging on two fronts, as Lynch delivered her message on Apple’s home turf while FBI director James Comey and Apple’s general counsel offered opposing views on encryption during a congressional hearing in Washington.

Apple has refused to comply with a court order obtained by the FBI to remove some security features so investigators can hack into the iPhone used by one of the shooters in the December massacre that killed 14 people. A hearing is scheduled March 22.

“Essentially we’re asking Apple to take the vicious guard dog away, let us try and pick the lock,” Comey told the House Judiciary Committee.

Threat to Users

Apple said complying with the FBI’s demand would threaten the privacy and security of millions of iPhone users. The company, in its legal argument to reject the order, said the government’s request would force Apple to become an arm of the authorities, violating the First and Fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Providing access to the smartphone in the San Bernardino case, “will weaken our safety and security, but it will not affect the terrorists,” Apple’s General Counsel Bruce Sewell told lawmakers in Washington.

Lynch rejected Apple’s contention that its constitutional rights are at issue. “Apple’s not a target in this matter,” she said. “We are not alleging that they have done anything wrong.”

The comments Tuesday from Lynch and Comey came after Apple notched a win in New York, where U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein denied the government’s bid to force the company to help it gain access to an iPhone that belonged to a drug dealer. Lynch said she was disappointed in the decision and that prosecutors planned to resubmit their request for access to the device.

“It’s a great company that makes beautiful products,” Lynch said of Apple. More is at stake, however, “than just one company and how they’ve chosen to build a certain set of devices.”

Lynch said that the government is only asking the company to do something it has done for a long time, before Apple built stronger encryption into its operating system.

No ‘Parade of Horribles’

“This has been going on for years and we have not had the parade of horribles that Apple is now asserting,” she said.

During the House hearing in Washington, Sewell said that providing access to the phone in the San Bernardino case “would create a risk for everybody who owns an iPhone that their data could be compromised.” Apple is in an arms race with “criminals, cyberterrorists and hackers,” he said.

Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the panel’s top Democrat, criticized the FBI for turning to the courts rather than Congress.

“The government’s assertion of power is without limiting principle and likely to have sweeping consequences -- whether or not we pretend that the request is limited to just this device, or just this one case,” Conyers said of the California case. “Why has the government taken this step and forced this issue?”

Apple argues that the dispute over access to encrypted content should be settled by Congress through legislation, as did Orenstein. Lynch disagreed in the interview with Bloomberg Television, saying the middle ground will be found by the courts.

“It really is about how we access evidence anywhere,” she said, comparing law enforcement requests for data on a mobile phone to officials with a search warrant seeking access to information inside a house.

Asked how the dispute with the iPhone and iPad maker could be resolved, Lynch said “They could do what’s been asked by them.”

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