Apple's senior attorney Bruce Sewell and FBI Director James Comey will speak to a congressional committee next Tuesday about Apple's refusal to help law enforcement unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook.
A California federal district court issued an order February 16 instructing Apple to build a custom firmware upgrade that could be loaded onto Farook's iPhone 5c enabling the FBI to access data on the device. The data, the FBI says, could establish a link between the San Bernardino terrorists and ISIS leadership in the Middle East.
The House Judiciary Committee hearing, titled "The Encryption Tightrope: Balancing Americans' Security and Privacy," will mark the first time Apple and federal law enforcement will face off publicly on the matter.
Comey will speak during the first panel of the day, then Sewell, Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Susan Landau, and New York County D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr. will speak on a second panel.
Vance made news this week by saying that he has 175 iPhones he would like to unlock for investigations, if only he had a master key. He also quoted a monitored phone call on which a known criminal said Apple's strong encryption on iPhones is "a gift from God."
The news comes a day after Apple CEO Tim Cook appeared on national television, saying that the software "key" his company is being asked to create to access Farook's phone would be like a spreading "cancer." Apple believes a key created for one iPhone 5c could be used to unlock other such devices, and that there's no way to guarantee that such a key would not be released in the wild after first use.
Law enforcement isn't buying it. CNBC quotes a senior law enforcement agency official as saying about the analogy: "If you’re talking cancer cells, in this case they would create the cancer cell, they would use the cancer cell and then they would destroy the cancer cell, in their own facility where you would think they would have very good security."
"This is a solution for a single device by serial number in a single case," the person added.
The current imbroglio between the FBI and Apple could have far implications far beyond the Farook Case. How it gets resolved, whether in Congress or in the courts, could dictate tech companies' obligations to comply with court orders to help with criminal and national security matters well into the future.
Comey is downplaying that concern. He told a congressional committee hearing this morning that while some courts might be guided by the current case (being heard in the federal district court in California's Central District), he doesn't see it as a "trailblazer" case that will guide lawmaking or policymaking in the future.
The Central District Court in Riverside, California will hear the case again on March 22. Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Andrew Crocker explains that the court order that came down last Tuesday was "preliminary" and meant to elicit a response from Apple, and that the real order will come after the March 22 hearing.
Apple has until tomorrow, February 26, to reply to the court. The company faces a range of punishments if it persists in defying the court order.