Today, after weeks of making its arguments in posts on its website and comments to the press, Apple presented its case for maintaining the strength of its encryption to an audience that may ultimately have the final say: Congress. But as the five hour-long hearing made clear, much of Congress has some homework to do before they’ll understand a key technical detail Apple keeps repeating—that helping the FBI unlock this iPhone will likely set a dangerous precedent for everyone’s cybersecurity.
In a hearing on the Hill, Apple’s general counsel Bruce Sewell, reading his opening statements off of an iPad Pro, argued many of the same points the company has made since its fight over a San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone first began. The FBI wants Apple to write software that would help the FBI circumvent that iPhone’s security measures. Apple has counters that doing so would not only weaken the security of all of its products, but set a troubling precedent for the tech industry at large.
“Building that software tool would not affect just one iPhone,” Sewell said in his opening remarks. “It would weaken the security for all of them.”
Perhaps surprisingly, FBI Director James Comey, who himself gave three hours of testimony before the committee, agreed, at least in part. “Sure, potentially,” Comey agreed, when asked by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia whether this request would set a precedent for others in the future, from the FBI or another agency. “Any decision of a court about a matter is potentially useful to other courts.”
That’s a change of tack for the FBI, which had previously attempted to center the argument around “just one phone.” In general, Comey struck a reconciliatory tone, insisting that neither Apple nor the FBI was at fault. “There are no demons in this debate,” said Comey. “The companies are not evil. The government’s not evil. You have a whole lot of good people who see the world through different lenses, who all care about the same things. The companies care about public safety; the FBI cares about innovation and privacy.”
That dichotomy between safety and privacy—here inverted, in an attempt to show a common goal—is one that Comey has stressed repeatedly throughout this process. It’s one that was quickly shot down, though, both by more technologically competent members of the committee and by expert witness Susan Landau, a professor and former Google privacy analyst who co-authored a landmark paper on backdoors and security titled “Keys Under Doormats.”