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Apple, FBI Face Off in Testimony Today (Watch)

FBI Director James Comey and Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell are expected to testify on encryption.

Composite image by Re/code

Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — which have been sparring in court and in the media over encryption — will face off in testimony today before the House Judiciary Committee.

The committee is trying to find a way to help law enforcement do its job without compromising the privacy rights of American citizens or the competitiveness of U.S. corporations whose products rely on encryption. It’s a battle that has been brewing for more than a year, since Apple and other technology companies bolstered security on their products.

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The title of the hearing, “The Encryption Tightrope,” underscores the difficulty of finding a middle ground.

FBI Director James Comey will once again argue that technology is hindering law enforcement’s ability to investigate serious crimes — a phenomenon he frequently describes as “going dark.”

“We have seen case after case — from homicides and kidnappings to drug trafficking, financial fraud and financial exploitation — where critical evidence came from smartphones, computers and online communication,” Comey said in prepared remarks. “When changes in technology hinder law enforcement’s ability to exercise investigative tools and follow critical leads, we may not be able to root out the child predators hiding in the shadows of the Internet or find and arrest violent criminals who are targeting our neighborhoods.”

Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell will testify that what the government wants, in asking a federal judge to order the company to help investigators unlock a phone used by one of the assailants in the Dec. 2 attacks in San Bernardino, sets a dangerous precedent.

“The FBI is asking Apple to weaken the security of our products,” Sewell said in prepared remarks. “Hackers and cyber criminals could use this to wreak havoc on our privacy and personal safety. It would set a dangerous precedent for government intrusion on the privacy and safety of its citizens.”

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. argues that smartphones shouldn’t be placed beyond the reach of government warrants — any more than the safes, file cabinets or closets that suspects have used to hide evidence of crime. He proposes rolling back the technological clock to 2013, when Apple introduced its iOS 7 mobile operating system (one that didn’t have the current level of security).

“Apple is not above the law,” Vance said in his prepared remarks. “And its bottom line is not more important than the safety of Americans.”

Susan Landeau, a cyber security professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, counters that encryption is vital to national security — indeed, the NSA has been promoting its use in the private sector since 1995. She calls on the FBI to develop modern techniques for extracting information from smartphones.

“We should help law enforcement adopt a 21st century approach,” Landeau said in her prepared testimony. “The Bureau has some expertise in this direction, but it will need more, much more.”

The testimony begins at 10 am PT today. The session will be livestreamed.

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