FBI Director James Comey finally has something to say about his agency’s fight with Apple.
In a lengthy statement issued on Sunday, Comey, who has been critical of Apple (AAPL) and other technology companies in the past, said that his agency’s desire to gain access to an iPhone owned by the San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook is about “the victims and justice.”
“Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined,” he wrote. “We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. That’s what this is. The American people should expect nothing less from the FBI.”
Comey went on to explain his agency’s side in the matter. He argues that asking Apple to provide the FBI access to the data saved on the San Bernardino terrorist’s phone won’t hurt privacy or create opportunities for hackers to attack unsuspecting victims.
“We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That’s it,” he said. “We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land. I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that.”
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Comey’s statement comes days after a fight broke out between the U.S. government and Apple over whether the FBI should be allowed to obtain access to the iPhone in question. In a court order filed last week, a U.S. magistrate judge sided with the FBI and ordered Apple to provide software to law enforcement officials that would allow them to break the passcode on the device and gain access to its data.
Soon after the order was filed, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a scathing rebuttal, saying that his company would not comply with the request. Cook said the request would create “a dangerous precedent” if the government’s demands are met. He said in his letter that complying with the order would give the government “the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data.”
“The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge,” Cook wrote in the open letter. “Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.”
Cook didn’t stop there. In an email to employees obtained by TechCrunch, Cook argues that the government should end its battle with his company and allow Congress to debate national security and privacy.
He said that the government should end its legal attempts and instead “form a commission or other panel of experts on intelligence, technology, and civil liberties, to discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy, and personal freedom.” Cook added that Apple would “gladly participate” in any such forum.
“This case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation, so when we received the government’s order we knew we had to speak out,” Cook wrote. “At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties.”
In his own letter, Comey made clear that he sees things differently. He asked that everyone “take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending.” He seemed to agree with Apple, however, in believing that the case highlights an issue that can be solved by companies and government working together.
“Although this case is about the innocents attacked in San Bernardino, it does highlight that we have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure—privacy and safety,” he wrote. “That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living. It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before.”
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Looking ahead, Comey didn’t say whether his agency would back off Apple or not. He only asked all Americans to join in the “conversation” over how privacy and safety should be balanced.
“So I hope folks will remember what terrorists did to innocent Americans at a San Bernardino office gathering and why the FBI simply must do all we can under the law to investigate that,” he wrote. “And in that sober spirit, I also hope all Americans will participate in the long conversation we must have about how to both embrace the technology we love and get the safety we need.”
Apple did not respond to a request for comment.