Apple's top lawyer: FBI order weakens security for all iPhones

Apple's top lawyer: FBI order weakens security for all iPhones
© Getty Images

The FBI’s effort to force Apple to help unlock one of the San Bernardino shooter's iPhones would weaken security for all devices, the company's top lawyer will tell lawmakers on Tuesday.

“We can all agree this is not about access to just one iPhone,” Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell says in written testimony to be given to the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing on encryption.

The tech giant is opposing a court order to build software that would disable a key security feature on the phone, arguing that it would set a dangerous precedent for federal overreach.


The FBI is demanding that Apple write a piece of code disabling a feature that wipes the phone's memory if an incorrect password is entered 10 times in a row. That would allow the FBI to hack into the device.

“Should the FBI have the right to compel a company to produce a product it doesn't already make, to the FBI’s exact specifications and for the FBI’s use?” Sewell argues in his testimony.

FBI Director James Comey, who will also testify before a separate Judiciary panel on Tuesday, argues that the request is tailored only for shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s device.

“Experts have told me the combination of a [iPhone] 5c and this particular operating system is sufficiently unusual that it’s unlikely to be a trailblazer because of technology being the limiting principle,” Comey told the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

But he also acknowledged that a decision in the case could be “instructive” for other courts, a subtle shift from an earlier position that it was “not about setting a precedent.”

“A decision by a judge will guide how other courts handle similar requests. How judges interpret that is not binding, but will be important, so I think that’s fair to say,” Comey said at the hearing.

Sewell references Comey's shift in his own testimony.

“Just last week Director Comey agreed that the FBI would likely use this precedent in other cases involving other phones,” his testimony says. “[Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance] has also said he would absolutely plan to use this on over 175 phones.”

Vance, who is testifying on the same panel as Sewell, in November released a paper calling on Congress to require that tech companies make encrypted data accessible to government searches.

“The legislation would provide that any smartphone manufactured, leased, or sold in the U.S. must be able to be unlocked, or its data accessed, by the operating system designer,” the proposal reads. “It would require, simply, that designers and makers of operating systems not design or build them to be impregnable to lawful governmental searches.”

Vance is expected to repeat those calls before Congress on Tuesday.

"We do not want a backdoor for the government to access users’ information, and we do not want a key held by the government," Vance's testimony reads. "We want Apple, Google, and other technology companies to maintain their ability to access data at rest on phones pursuant to a neutral judge’s court order."

Sewell argues that the FBI’s request is dangerous to all iPhone users from a technological perspective. Vance and Comey are demanding a “backdoor,” according to Apple, that could be repurposed by cyber criminals to break the encryption on any iPhone.

“Building that software tool would not affect just one iPhone. It would weaken the security for all of them,” Sewell says.