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Is Unlocking An iPhone Essential To The San Bernardino Shooting Probe?


Let's hear an intelligence and law enforcement perspective for what to do with one particular iPhone. It's the phone used by one of the shooters in San Bernardino, Calif. Apple, as you may have heard, is resisting an order to create software to unlock that phone. Philip Mudd is watching all this as an analyst, formerly with the CIA and FBI. He's on the line from California. Good morning, sir.

PHILIP MUDD: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Bottom line, should Apple unlock this phone?

MUDD: Yes, I think they should. But as with any compromise, there should be limits here. I do not believe the U.S. government should ask a company, in this case Apple, to engineer a phone with flaws or what they call backdoors. I do believe for a phone that's already produced in the event of a terror incidents or murder where you have dead people that that company should be asked or required by the court to open the phone with one additional compromised piece. And that is I don't believe they should tell the government how they did it. They might - they should hand over the data but not compromise themselves by giving the government the method by which they broke the code.

INSKEEP: I think Apple's position is that's not a compromise at all. You're saying they shouldn't engineer a phone that's unlockable in advance. They should just go back afterward on rare occasions and do that. But Apple says once we've done this, it's done. It can be done again, hackers can do it, other things can happen.

MUDD: Well, hackers can do it now. I think it could be done again. But think of a scenario - let's take a Paris attack scenario when you have an attack or a potential plot in the United States, if that existed. And the attack is live and Apple says well, we won't unlock that phone if that individual has an iPhone. It's hard to envision that scenario. And before we say that's precedent-setting, I would say we've done this for decades with emails and phone information before the age of smartphones and nobody said that that fundamentally violated American rights. So I don't know why smartphones are so much different than issuing a court order to, say, Verizon or to Google for email information.

INSKEEP: And you raise another interesting point. Our correspondent is reporting this morning that Apple has unlocked phones before and it's been much quieter and not so controversial. However, we've also heard on this program from Maine Sen. Angus King, who's on the Senate Intelligence Committee. And he raises a question - suppose Apple does this - suppose Apple unlocks the phone and then China starts asking to unlock iPhones and Iran starts asking to unlock iPhones and Russia starts to ask for iPhones to be unlocked, what do you do then?

MUDD: I think there's a small issue there and there's a big issue. The first issue is I'm not sure an American company should be subject to what the Chinese or the Iranians want because obviously there's a concern there that they're going to come ask for information about freedom fighters or people who are political oppositionists. I do think there's in the age of globalization a bigger conversation to be had across governments, and that is if you have a Chinese company that had information for an American criminal case, what would we do? I think governments have to talk and say we can't limit ourselves to national boundaries in terms of finding the solution to something as - this big. We've got to talk about what we do cross borders.

INSKEEP: Well, it's all very well to say that you shouldn't be subject to China's demands. But if you're Apple and you want to sell iPhones in the world's biggest market, I'm sure China could very easily say if you want to sell stuff here, you've got to make it accessible to us.

MUDD: I think so. That's why I think there has to be a conversation across governments about treaties or agreements on what to do for data. We do that now. We do that when China comes in a criminal investigation in China and says we have a citizen of our country. Is it appropriate for the Americans to cooperate? Under certain circumstances the answer is yes. This is just different because it's a digital request. It's not a request for information about a human being in a criminal case.

INSKEEP: You have used the word compromise. The FBI director, James Comey, put out a statement over the weekend that appeared to be a call for compromise. He said let's take a deep breath. Stop saying the world is ending. Use that breath to talk to each other. Do you really believe there is a compromise to this fundamental question?

MUDD: I do. And I do think both Apple and the FBI should lower the rhetoric. When you're going into a conversation about compromise, the kinds of statements I've seen come out are too quick to paint both sides into a corner. They've got to talk about what the solution is, not what the bars to a solution are.


MUDD: But I think there is a compromise here somewhere.

INSKEEP: Philip Mudd, thanks very much...

MUDD: Thank you.

INSKEEP: ...Pleasure talking with you. He's a former counterintelligence official with the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Council.

INSKEEP: Now, Apple is speaking out on this case once again today. Tim Cook, the company's CEO, sent an email to employees. The subject line is thank you for your support. It indicates that Apple will continue to resist the court order if possible. Cook acknowledges that Apple could unlock the iPhone but said that is, quote, "something we believe is too dangerous to do." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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