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FBI Chief To House Panel: Tech Firms Create Dangerous New Normal


And on Capitol Hill yesterday, FBI Director James Comey called Apple's encryption technology a vicious guard dog that should be called off so the FBI can get into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. Apple is fighting a court order to do that. Its top lawyer and Comey testified before the House Judiciary Committee, as NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Lawmakers held a hearing on encryption and Director Comey admitted that his team botched its handling of the San Bernardino shooters encrypted iPhone.


JAMES COMEY: There was a mistake made in the - in that 24 hours after the attack.

SHAHANI: The county, at the FBI's request, changed the password used by the shooter and that ended up short-circuiting an automatic process built-in by Apple to backup all the data inside on the cloud. Representative Darrell Issa grilled Comey on what exactly the FBI tried to do to get into that phone themselves before going to the court or trying to make Apple write code for them. Comey didn't offer any tangible answers, and Issa got indignant.


DARRELL ISSA: Because you're expecting somebody to obey an order to do something they don't want to do and you haven't even figured out whether you could do it yourself. You've just told us, well, we can't do it.

SHAHANI: Comey did mention that he asked other agencies for help without naming names like, say, the National Security

Agency. But according to the FBI director, no one offered a solution. And meanwhile, he's worried technology companies are creating a dangerous new normal.


COMEY: We're moving to a place where there are warrant-proof places in our life.

SHAHANI: Warrant-proof - in the physical world, if police get a warrant, they can go into any corner of your home and search. In the digital world, some places are becoming encrypted so securely, Comey says, they are off-limits.


COMEY: That's a world we've never lived in before in the United States that has profound consequences for public safety. And all I'm saying is we shouldn't drift there, right? Companies that sell stuff shouldn't tell us how to be. The FBI shouldn't tell us how to be. The American people should say the world is different. How do we want to be?

SHAHANI: Back in October, the Obama administration decided it was not going to push for a bill to make tech companies decode encrypted data for police. The Judiciary Committee puzzled over whether or not they should take on that approach. And it wasn't a debate with clear partisan lines. Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, asked Apple's lawyer Bruce Sewell what would happen abroad if the U.S. told Apple you've got to make a key for us to get into locked phones.


TED POE: What will other countries like China require or request or demand of Apple?

BRUCE SEWELL: To date, we have not had demands like that from any other country. The only place that we're having this debate is in our own country. But I - as I said before, I think if we are ordered to do this it will be a hot minute before we get those requests from other places.

SHAHANI: It could sound like a very familiar standoff between privacy and security. Apple wants to store customer data with encryption as strong as kryptonite. The FBI wants to protect American citizens from terrorists, drug dealers, pedophiles. But another witness, veteran cybersecurity expert Susan Landau, said she thinks the real issue is computer skills. It's not that Apple's encryption is too strong. It's that the FBI is too weak.


SUSAN LANDAU: They have some expertise, but it's not at the level that they ought to have.

SHAHANI: She suggested Congress focus on funding the FBI to get better at cyber investigations. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
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