FBI director backtracks, says iPhone hacking case would set a legal precedent

FBI Vs. Apple

When FBI director James Comey authored a blog post on the agency’s current legal battle with Apple, he made a point of emphasizing that the FBI was in no way seeking a master key that would grant it access to every iPhone on the planet.

On the contrary, Comey attempted to frame the issue as a unique event that wouldn’t necessarily have far-reaching implications in the future.

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“The particular legal issue is actually quite narrow,” Comey explained. “The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve. 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.”

If that’s all the FBI truly wanted and would ever want, it might sound reasonable at first glance. But while testifying before Congress earlier this afternoon, Comey was singing something of a different tune.

When asked, under oath, whether or not a favorable decision in the ongoing San Bernardino case might be used as a legal precedent in future cases where the FBI would ask a tech company to write specialized software, Comey replied in the affirmative.

“If the All Writs Act is available to us, and relief under the All Writs Act fits the powers of the statute, of course” the FBI would indeed seek to compel similar assistance from tech companies, Comey explained.

“That’s just the way the law works,” Comey added, “which I happen to think is a good thing.”

Yes, that’s exactly the way the law works, which is precisely why Apple is taking the issue so seriously.

As Apple attorney Bruce Sewell mentioned in his opening remarks at today’s hearing, “We can all agree this is not about access to just one iPhone.”

As the company explained in its legal filing last week:

If Apple can be forced to write code in this case to bypass security features and create new accessibility, what is to stop the government from demanding that Apple write code to turn on the microphone in aid of government surveillance, activate the video camera, surreptitiously record conversations, or turn on location services to track the phone’s user? Nothing.

Notably, the opening sentences to Comey’s blog post a few days ago read as follows: “The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice.”

That may very well be the case, but just because the San Bernardino litigation wasn’t undertaken to establish a precedent (which some might dispute), that’s not to say that it wouldn’t, a fact which Comey himself conceded a short while ago.

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