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Shooting Investigators Want To Get Around iPhone Security Features


The federal government is fighting Apple over a cellphone. The FBI wants Apple to help break into an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist attack. Apple says it will challenge a federal magistrate's order to do just. Matt Olsen is the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He was appointed to that post by President Obama, and he's here to talk more about this. Good morning.

MATT OLSEN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, the Justice Department says this is a one-time only request for this individual phone. Apple counters that it would have to create a backdoor into this one phone and that backdoor could be used by other groups to hack into millions of other phones. So who is right here?

OLSEN: Well, I think that question really is the crux of the matter. And the way the legal issue is framed is - is this reasonable assistance? Is the order that requires Apple to disable this security feature, is it reasonable assistance? The court is going to have to resolve whether this is, as you say, sort of a broad backdoor, or as the government says a very specific solution to a significant problem for the FBI.

MONTAGNE: Well, what are the key - and what I would guess you would consider legitimate privacy concerns here?

OLSEN: Well, you know, I look at this case - I must say, I look at this case from the perspective of having served at the National Counterterrorism Center. So on the government's side, it's a pretty strong case on facts. You know, this is a phone that there's every reason to believe has significant evidence involving the San Bernardino attacks about which there are still some important questions that the FBI hasn't answered, in particular whether there are others that were involved with the two attackers. And then the other thing on the privacy question, Renee, is that, you know, this phone actually was owned by the San Bernardino County government. And the San Bernardino County government has consented to not only the search of the phone by the FBI but for Apple to take the steps necessary to gain access to the data. So this really isn't about the privacy of the owner of the phone because the privacy - that owner has actually consented to the search and to the steps that the government wants Apple to take.

MONTAGNE: Right. But this particular phone is not the one that Apple is concerned about. It's concerned about the privacy of millions of other phones that would be owned by other people and other entities. The idea being this backdoor effectively could migrate and turn into a backdoor for a lot of other phones. How true is that in your opinion?

OLSEN: Well, at least a reading what the government has said - the government is saying very clearly that this is not a general backdoor. This is a very specific solution that Apple has the capacity to create that would be specific to this phone.

MONTAGNE: So is Apple in a sense, you know, pushing this, making it up, overstating the problem?

OLSEN: You know, I can't say if they're overstating the problem. I do know that these sort of slippery-slope arguments are where lawyers go when they don't have good facts. And I think Apple doesn't have good facts in this case because - particularly because this is a phone that was used by somebody who killed 14 Americans - second-largest attack - or deadliest attack in the U.S. from a terrorism event has since 9/11.

MONTAGNE: Well, right, but that argument aside that the need to break into a phone because it is involved in a terrorist attack - I mean, the CEO of Apple says - used that expression slippery slope and said if we do it this one time, we'll have to do many other things all down the path.

OLSEN: Yeah. You know, of course that's a concern and the court needs to look carefully at that. And I think it does go to how specific the solution is that Apple is being asked to create. But, you know, Apple has complied dozens of times over the past few years with similar type orders from courts to gain access to the phones. So this is not the time this issue's come up.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, not the first time by far. How big in the broader sense is this fight? How long is this fight going to go?

OLSEN: Well, you know, that's a great question because this is really - goes to the heart of this broad encryption debate between the government and between groups like Apple, companies like Apple. I think this will go on some time in terms of the legal issues. But the broader question of encryption's going to continue on.

MONTAGNE: OK, well, thank you very much for joining us.

OLSEN: My pleasure, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Matt Olsen is the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. He is currently an analyst with ABC News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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