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Apple takes on the FBI in Congress: 9 things you may have missed from yesterday’s hearing

Apple Vs FBI

The policy debate sparked by Apple’s legal battle with the FBI has galvanized the tech world and has understandably attracted worldwide attention. At the core, Apple’s battle with the FBI centers on how we should strike a balance between user privacy and the interests of national security.

Yesterday, both Apple and the FBI appeared before Congress where they each explained their respective positions in detail. The entire hearing was more than five hours long; so while you may have already heard some key excerpts, it might also be helpful to highlight some of the broader talking points that arose during yesterday’s hearing.

DON’T MISS: Apple asks the FBI: How hard did you really try to hack into the iPhone?

1. FBI admits case could set a legal precedent

FBI director James Comey conceded that the San Bernardino case might establish a precedent that the FBI could rely upon in future cases. This was a notable admission given that Comey previously argued that what the FBI was seeking in this case was extremely narrow in scope. Comey’s response also bolstered Apple’s own claim that this case is truly not just about one single iPhone, it’s about every iOS device in use around the world.

2. Apple: smartphones contain more sensitive information than any other device or place

Speaking to the importance of safeguarding user privacy, Apple’s top lawyer argued that “there is probably more information stored on an iPhone than a thief could steal by breaking into your house.”

3. FBI admits it made a mistake

In the hours after the San Bernardino shooting, the San Bernardino Health Department, at the direction of the FBI, changed the device’s Apple ID. As a result, all automatic iCloud backups from the device were halted. Had the Apple ID not been changed, Apple contends that the FBI would have been able to access the information it so badly wants.

When asked about this during yesterday’s hearing, Comey conceded that it was a mistake.

“There was a mistake made in the first 24 hours, where the county, at the FBI’s request, made it hard to make the phone back up by [changing the password of] the iCloud account.”

At the same time, Comey added that even if full iCloud backups were not stopped, the FBI would still be interested in examining other data housed on the phone.

4. The FBI said it asked the NSA for help

The FBI yesterday said that it asked other governmental agencies, including the NSA, for their assistance in unlocking the shooter’s iPhone. But as we pointed out earlier, there’s no indication if the NSA refused to help and chose not to share their trade-secrets or if they were just as flummoxed as the FBI.

5. The FBI said it’s not as technically advanced as people may think

Regarding the FBI’s own technical prowess, Comey said the following: “We don’t have the capabilities that people imagine us to have. If we could have done this quietly and privately we would have done it.”

6. The NSA may in fact know how to break into the device

While testifying, technology expert Susan Landau said that the NSA does, in fact, have the requisite tools needed to break into the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone without even needing to guess the device’s passcode.

“The FBI needs to take a page from the NSA,” Landau testified yesterday.

7. Congress didn’t take it easy on the FBI

Throughout the hearing, members of Congress grilled FBI director James Comey pretty hard, asking him tough questions and expressing dismay and at times frustration during the times he was unable to respond with an appropriate answer.

8. Apple can technically do what the FBI is demanding

As Apple has stated from the beginning of this saga, doing what the FBI demands is technically possible. In fact, during Apple’s recently filed motion to vacate, Apple laid out in exact detail how long such an undertaking would last and how many engineering hours would be needed.

Nonetheless, Apple yesterday added that it’s objection to helping out the FBI isn’t about the burden of spending money or engineering resources, but is rather centers on the burden of “compromising the security of our customers.”

9. Not everyone in Congress fully grasps the issue

At one pint, Representative Terry Gowdy from South Carolina exclaimed: “You can go into people’s bodies and remove bullets but you can’t go into a dead person’s iPhone and remove the data? I’m just amazed by that.”

If you have five hours to kill, a full embed of the hearing can be viewed below.

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large for over 15 years. A life long Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW. When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.