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Congress is disturbed by the FBI director’s lack of tech knowledge

Apple FBI iPhone Encryption Comey

A couple of weeks ago, the FBI and Apple faced off in a Congressional hearing and answered various questions fielded by members of the House Judiciary Committee.

Now it appears that members of the committee, from both sides of the aisle, aren’t happy with FBI Director James Comey’ grasp of technology.

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According to Fast Company’s sources, members of the committee were unpleasantly surprised by Comey’s apparent unpreparedness to answer some of the more technical questions. On one hand, it’s great to see the chief of one of the most relevant law enforcement agencies in the world admit he’s not fully aware of all the technical aspects of encryption. On the other hand, Comey could have brought in aides to help him out with these questions, but he decided not to do it.

Comey declined to answer several questions, explaining he lacked the technical understanding to do it. But he also proved he knows less than some of the members of the committee.

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has a security background, asked Comey about the FBI’s attempts to crack the iPhone 5c that belongs to Syed Farook. Issa knew there are two ways to do it, one involving Apple’s help (disabling the security features of iOS), and one that can be done by removing the flash memory chip from the phone and mirroring its contents.

Issa wanted to find out if Comey knew for certain the FBI can’t break into the iPhone by itself, and Comey’s answers were not satisfactory.

“We have engaged all parts of government to see if anybody has a way of doing this on an iPhone 5c running iOS 9, and we don’t,” Comey said.

When asked about the mirroring technique, Comey seemed not to understand the question.

“If you haven’t asked that question, how can you come before this committee and before a federal judge and demand that somebody else invent something if you can’t answer the questions that your people have tried this?” he asked Comey.

“First, I’m the director of the FBI. If I could answer that question there’d be something dysfunctional with my leadership,” Comey said.

“I only asked you if your people have tried that, not whether or not it would work,” Issa continued. “Who did you go to to find out if you could do it yourself?”

“I did not ask the questions you’re asking here today, and I’m not sure I even understand the questions,” Comey replied. “I have reasonable confidence, in fact, I have high confidence, that the federal government has reviewed all the options.”

“I’ve heard about mirroring, maybe that’s what you’re talking about. Hopefully, my folks are watching this, and if they hear any good ideas in what you’re talking about, we’ll let you know.”

Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren admitted that Comey’s lack of knowledge is problematic for the entire debate.

“It’s clear he’s not up to speed on some of the technical issues, which he conceded during the hearing,” Lofgren told Fast Company. “And that might be part of the problem as to why they are pursuing the course of action they are pursuing.”

“The director can’t be expected to be an expert on every subject but I didn’t see him [bring any help into the meeting], which I thought was interesting,” she said.

Other committee members did not comment on the matter. But committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) told the site that “the House Judiciary Committee will soon announce its next steps on the encryption debate.”

“As we move forward, the goal is to find a solution that allows law enforcement to effectively enforce the law without harming the competitiveness of U.S. encryption providers or the privacy and security protections of U.S. citizens,” Goodlatte added.

A federal court hearing in the FBI vs. Apple case is scheduled for March 22nd.

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he closely follows the events in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises. Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.