AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The showdown between Apple and the FBI landed before lawmakers on Capitol Hill today. Members of the House Judiciary Committee grilled FBI director James Comey. The lawmakers wanted to know why the FBI went to court to force Apple to help them unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. Apple's top lawyer is in the hot seat now. Here to discuss what's going on is NPR tech reporter Aarti Shahani. Welcome to the studio.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: So the FBI has said that this case is about just the one iPhone used in the San Bernardino - by the San Bernardino attackers. Now, did the FBI chief maintain that position today?
SHAHANI: No, Comey 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. And Comey was evasive, and then Conyers posed a yes-or-no question.
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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, Manhattan's district attorney, Cyrus Vance, another expert witness today - he's saying he's got 170-plus iPhones he'd like some help unlocking.
This all raises another public safety concern. If Apple creates a process to keep unlocking phones, bypassing encryption, then couldn't the tools to do it fall in the hands of bad guys? Another expert witness argues that 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.
CORNISH: Right. And to bring in some context here, the courts are split. California ruled in favor of the FBI, and just yesterday, a New York judge ruled in favor of Apple. That was in a case where law enforcement wanted help cracking an iPhone for a drug investigation, right? I mean, what do lawmakers want?
SHAHANI: Well, Congress is scratching its head. Members were all over the place today about how to regulate encryption. 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 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. You know, maybe we're letting private companies create places that are above the law, as in - with a warrant, police can search every physical place in which you go. And are we creating so-called warrant-proof zones in the digital world? And Director Comey made this point.
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COMEY: So from the founding of this country, it was contemplated that law enforcement could go into your house with appropriate predication and oversight. So to me, the logic of that tells me they wouldn't have imagined any box or storage area or device that could never be entered.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, Apple isn't saying that the FBI can't enter the iPhone, right? They're saying that they just don't want to basically help the FBI do it.
SHAHANI: Yeah, and this is a key point that came up quite powerfully by Representative Darrell Issa. He started asking Comey techincal questions about stuff the FBI's tried to get into - about stuff the FBI's tried to do to get into the iPhone without Apple writing special code for them. Comey didn't really know. He couldn't explain even at a high level what steps his own agency has taken to get in. And he also admitted that the FBI harmed its own investigation by having San Bernardino change a password and making it impossible to get into data stored online. And you know, Issa questioned the FBI's competence. And in doing that, you know, that exchange really left me with a question. Is the problem that the iPhone is too strong, or is it that the FBI - its cyber-investigative skills - is that too weak? And Apple's chief lawyer is testifying right now, and he'll clearly have a take on that.
CORNISH: More to come from NPR's Aarti Shahani. Thanks so much.
SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.