FBI owes it to victims to access San Bernardino killer’s phone, director says

FBI Director James Comey said late Sunday that the agency owed the victims of last December’s San Bernardino terror attack a “thorough and professional investigation”, in an effort to explain why law enforcement officials are trying to compel Apple to help them gain access to a cellphone owned by one of the gunmen.

In a post on the Lawfare blog, Comey wrote that the FBI “can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead.”

The post was Comey’s first public statement since Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that the company would fight a federal magistrate’s order to help the FBI hack into Syed Farook’s work-issued iPhone. Farook, along with wife Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in the Dec. 2 attacks. 

Cook claimed that the judge’s order required Apple to “build a backdoor to the iPhone”, which he described as “something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create.”

The CEO said that if the technology to hack Farook’s iPhone was created, it “would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes.”

“The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message,” Comey wrote in his blog post. “It is about the victims and justice.”

“The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve,” Comey continued. “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.”

On Friday, the Justice Department filed a motion to compel Apple to comply with the court order. U.S. Attorney Robert L. Capers said Apple has followed court orders to unlock phones at least 70 times in various cases. 

Apple has until Feb. 26 to file its opposition to the initial order.

Comey did acknowledge in his statement that the clash has laid bare a tension between privacy and security. But he said that divide should not be resolved by the FBI nor “corporations that sell stuff for a living.”

“It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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