FBI Director James Comey Wants Everyone to Chill Out About the Apple Debacle

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

On Friday, the FBI made a firm demand of Apple, asking a court to compel the company to help open the phone of one of the shooters who killed 14 in San Bernardino, California, in December. In response, technologists, digital rights activists, cryptographers and major editorial boards took up pitchforks to defend Apple from what they consider an unfair mandate.

Now the FBI just wishes everyone would settle down.

Late Sunday night, FBI Director James Comey sent out an open letter asking everyone to relax and let the FBI do its job, imploring the public not to give into the media hype claiming the FBI is looking to open the floodgates for unchecked cracking of phones across the country.

In the letter released by the FBI, Comey capitalized on the "heart-breaking case" of San Bernardino to drive home the urgent need for Apple to comply with the FBI's demand to help unlock the iPhone in question. Acknowledging that new kinds of technology have amplified the tension between privacy and security, he pleaded for everyone to see that they were looking for limited access, not a broad, holistic surveillance measure.

"[This] tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living."

"That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living," Comey wrote. "It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates 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."

Specifically, Comey wants to quiet one fear in particular: that the FBI's demand will set a dangerous precedent, allowing not just hackers, but law enforcement and foreign nations to eventually use the inroads created by the FBI — legal and technological, should the methods of altering the iOS firmware leak — to break into iPhones all over the world.

"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," Comey wrote. "That's it. We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land."

Here is the letter from the FBI director in full:

The San Bernardino litigation isn't about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice. Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined. We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. That's what this is. The American people should expect nothing less from the FBI.

The particular legal issue is actually quite narrow. The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve. 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. We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land. I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that. Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn't. But we can't look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don't follow this lead.

Reflecting the context of this heart-breaking case, I hope folks will take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending, but instead use that breath to talk to each other. Although this case is about the innocents attacked in San Bernardino, it does highlight that we have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure – privacy and safety. That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates 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. We shouldn't drift to a place – or be pushed to a place by the loudest voices – because finding the right place, the right balance, will matter to every American for a very long time.

So I hope folks will remember what terrorists did to innocent Americans at a San Bernardino office gathering and why the FBI simply must do all we can under the law to investigate that. And in that sober spirit, I also hope all Americans will participate in the long conversation we must have about how to both embrace the technology we love and get the safety we need.

Jim Comey

Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation

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Jack Smith IV

Jack Smith IV is a senior writer covering technology and inequality. Send tips, comments and feedback to jack@mic.com.

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