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FBI Director James Comey Urges Apple To End iPhone Standoff In Open Letter


Apple is refusing to help federal investigators break into an iPhone that was used by one of the terrorists in the San Bernardino attack. Today, Apple CEO Tim Cook sent a letter to employees defended the company's stance. He said he did not want to set a dangerous precedent. NPR's Laura Sydell reports on what's at stake.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Both sides in this dispute are very passionate. Over the weekend, FBI director James Comey posted a personal statement on the blog Lawfare. He spoke of the San Bernardino case as heartbreaking. He said of the victims, we owe them a thorough investigation under the law. Comey said that the issues involved should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. But legal experts say what's really at stake for the government is being able to access information not just from this phone but in other heartbreaking cases. David Rudenstine is a professor at Cardozo School of Law.

DAVID RUDENSTINE: This is not a one-off. This really is the beginning of a - of the dike breaking and there being a lot of requests.

SYDELL: And that is part of why Apple is so passionate about this case. In his note to employees, Tim Cook wrote that Apple has no tolerance or sympathy for terrorists, but Cook said this case is about more than a single phone or investigation. Chris Finan, CEO of Manifold Technology which makes encryption, agrees with that assessment. He says a world of hackers will be working hard to find out how Apple did it.

CHRIS FINAN: We do much of our banking on our phones now. We have sensitive pictures and data. Opening up this type of vulnerability across the Apple line of products has very significant security implications.

SYDELL: And Finan says two-thirds of Apple's business is outside the U.S. in countries that are already looking for a way to break into iPhones - China, Russia, Iran. Finan says it is true that Apple's brand is wrapped up in its reputation for security and privacy.

FINAN: That helps political dissidents overseas protect themselves. So I think there's a lot more at stake than simply a brand because the brand really is built on a product that helps people and empowers people around the world.

SYDELL: That may be, but here in the U.S., it hasn't persuaded the majority of Americans. A poll released today by the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent say Apple should unlock the phone. Eleven percent had no opinion, and just 38 percent agree with Apple. The public will get a lot more information about the stakes in this case. Both Apple's Cook and the FBI's Comey welcomed inquiries by Congress, and Congress has obliged. Two congressional committees are seeking testimony from Tim Cook and, of course, law enforcement officials. Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.
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