The head of the FBI and Apple’s general counsel will testify before Congress next week amid the public debate over whether the tech giant should help agents unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in December’s terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., federal authorities said Thursday.
This announcement comes as the two sides are waging an increasingly public dispute that centers on one iPhone but touches on much larger issues of privacy and security in a digital world. The FBI has insisted that its requests in the case are narrow and aimed only at finding other terrorists; Apple argues that the government’s demands threaten “everyone’s civil liberties.”
FBI Director James B. Comey and Bruce Sewell, Apple’s general counsel, will appear as witnesses on two different panels Tuesday, according to the House Judiciary Committee.
“Americans have a right to strong privacy protections and Congress should fully examine the issue to be sure those are in place while finding ways to help law enforcement fight crime and keep us safe,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and ranking Democrat John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said in a joint statement Thursday.
Sewell’s panel will also include Cyrus R. Vance Jr., district attorney for New York County. Vance and William J. Bratton, the New York City police commissioner, released a statement last week saying that Apple’s refusal to comply with the FBI is proof of how tech companies “are thwarting serious criminal investigations and impeding public safety.”
The FBI has been unable to unlock an iPhone 5C that was used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of two shooters who killed 14 people and wounded 22 others in the Dec. 2 attacks in California. Agents have been able to access data from older iCloud backups from the phone, but they are seeking data that remains on the phone, which was given to Farook for his job with the county health department.
Last week, the Justice Department sought and obtained a California judge’s order telling Apple to disable a feature that automatically clears data from a phone after 10 incorrect attempts at entering a password. Apple chief executive Tim Cook responded with a public letter saying that the government was asking for “something we consider too dangerous to create.” Cook told ABC News in an interview Wednesday that the request is “bad for America.”
The Justice Department, meanwhile, said in a court filing that Apple is only concerned about its marketing, which the company has disputed. Apple has called on the department to withdraw its demands for help and instead form a panel of experts or a commission to discuss the issue.
Comey wrote a public letter asking people to “take a deep breath” and insisted that the government is not trying to set a precedent with its request.
“Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists,” he wrote. “Maybe it doesn’t. But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead.”
Apple has begun working on security enhancements that would make it impossible for the company to unlock newer iPhones in the manner being requested now, which means that even if the Justice Department prevails in its current battle, authorities may need to find another technical solution in the future.
[This story has been updated. First published: 1:28 p.m.]