It’s been less than a week since a federal judge ordered Apple to help the FBI unlock the San Bernardino killer’s iPhone, and in that time we’ve seen everyone from Tim Cook (penning a letter to express his opposition to the ruling) to the heads of major tech companies and presidential candidates weigh in on the matter. It has become increasingly clear that besides being played out in the courts, the final resolution may rest heavily on public perception of the issue.
Now FBI director James Comey is making his case to the public in an op-ed written on the Lawfare blog—and it's an emotional one. In the piece, which doesn’t mention Apple or the iPhone by name, Comey says that the FBI’s motives are not to gain a master key that unlocks all iPhones—as Tim Cook has warned could happen if Apple cooperates. Instead, Comey says, the FBI wants to do everything it can to find clues about the shooting or it "can't look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror" if it doesn’t follow the iPhone lead.
"The San Bernardino litigation isn't about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message," Comey writes. "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."
He goes on to clarify what he says the FBI is actually asking Apple to do. "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," he writes. The self-destruction that Comey alludes to is a feature built into iOS 8 and above that will automatically delete the contents of an iOS device if the wrong passcode is entered 10 times.
Comey also admits that the FBI doesn’t know what it will find on the iPhone, saying that it might lead to finding more terrorists or not.
Calling the context of the case "heart-breaking" Comey says that he hopes "folks will take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending, but instead use that breath to talk to each other." He also says that although this case is about the victims of the San Bernardino attacks it does highlight that the encryption technology used on the iPhone creates tension between privacy and safety. In the end, Comey says, it should not be "corporations that sell stuff for a living" or even the FBI that resolves this tension, but the American people who decide "how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before."