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House Judiciary Committee Grills FBI, Apple Over Encryption


The showdown between Apple and the FBI landed on Capitol Hill today. Members of the House Judiciary Committee grilled FBI director James Comey and Apple's top lawyer. NPR tech reporter Aarti Shahani joins us now to discuss how this debate between privacy and security is playing out in Congress. Hey, Aarti.


SHAPIRO: The FBI has said this case is about just that single iPhone that was used in San Bernardino. Did Comey maintain that position today?

SHAHANI: No, he did a 180 on that, or I should say, he was cornered into admitting it's not just about this one case. There's this key exchange where Representative John Conyers kept pushing Comey on that. Comey was evasive, and then Conyers posed a yes-or-no question.


JOHN CONYERS: If you succeed in this case, will the FBI return to the courts in future cases to demand that Apple and other private companies assist you in unlocking secure devices?

JAMES COMEY: Potentially, yes.

SHAHANI: Now, this is exactly what Apple's been saying, that the FBI is trying to establish a precedent. And actually, New York's district attorney, Cyrus Vance, another expert witness today - he's saying he's got 170-plus iPhones he'd like some help unlocking.

So this all raises another public safety concern. If Apple creates a process to keep unlocking phones, bypassing encryption, then couldn't the tools fall into the hands of the bad guys? Another expert witness argued this debate is not really about privacy versus security. It's about security versus security - the ability of police to investigate versus the ability of technology to protect consumers from hackers.

SHAPIRO: So far, the courts have been split. California ruled in favor of the FBI, and just yesterday, a New York judge ruled in favor of Apple. What do the lawmakers want?

SHAHANI: Well, you know, Congress is scratching its head. Zoe Lofgren raised the issue of China. China passed their own cyber security law at the end of last year. The Chinese government decided to not make their tech companies build in backdoors, ways for the government to read encrypted messages. And now Lofgren's saying China is revisiting that. So she's concerned that the U.S. is sending the wrong signal abroad.

Meanwhile, another Democrat, Luis Gutierrez, sounded a lot more sympathetic to law enforcement. He indicated maybe we're letting private companies create places that are above the law, as in - you know, with a warrant, police can search every physical place in which you go. Are we creating warrant-proof zones in the digital world?

SHAPIRO: And what about the witness from Apple? What did lawmakers ask there?

SHAHANI: Apple got a lot of support in that room. Lots of people in Congress use iPhones. But Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina - he felt Apple was taking a really hard-line stance on privacy, and he asked Apple's lead attorney, Bruce Sewell, basically, does Apple every think it should break its own code in a national security emergency?


TREY GOWDY: Whether it be nuclear weaponry, whether it be a terrorist plot, can you imagine a fact pattern where you would do what the Bureau is asking?

BRUCE SEWELL: Where we would create a tool that doesn't...


SEWELL: ...Exist in order to reduce the...


SEWELL: ...Security and safety of our users.


SEWELL: I'm not aware of such a fact pattern.

GOWDY: So there is no balancing to be done. You have already concluded that you're not going to do it.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like there's a real spread of opinion among lawmakers on how to regulate encryption. Is that really the essential question here?

SHAHANI: Well, there is another issue that came up quite strongly, in fact. It's the issue of, is it that the iPhone is too strong, or is it that the FBI's cyber investigation skills in the 21st century - is that just too weak? So FBI is pushing Apple to write code for it, and maybe the FBI needs to figure out how to unlock phones themselves, and maybe Congress should focus on funding that.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Aarti Shahani. Thanks, Aarti.

SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
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