FBI Director James Comey acknowledged to lawmakers Tuesday that officials mistakenly reset the password linked to one of the San Bernardino terrorist's phones during their investigation, but maintained his position that Apple should comply with a court order forcing the company to help break into the locked iPhone.
Testifying in front of the House Judiciary Committee, Comey said “there was a mistake made” when the iCloud password attached to Syed Rizwan Farook's iPhone was reset at the direction of the FBI.
Though, Comey was quick to add that, according to experts who have spoken to him, the FBI would still have challenged Apple in court because, he said, a backup from iCloud would not have restored all of the phone’s data.
"There is already a door on that iPhone," he said. "Essentially we are asking Apple: 'Take the vicious guard dog away. Let us try and pick the lock.'"
Last month, Apple executives said that if the password hadn’t been been changed, a backup of the phone would have been accessible. But the FBI has downplayed the effect of the password reset, claiming that it does not impact Apple’s ability to comply with the court order, and adding that “the government’s objective was, and still is, to extract as much evidence as possible from the phone.”
When asked why it took 50 days for the FBI to serve a warrant on Apple, Comey said there were “a whole lot of conversations going on in the interim.”
Comey also acknowledged to lawmakers that the San Bernardino case could set a legal precedent, influencing how other prosecutors and judges approach search requests of additional, locked iPhones.
In framing the debate over granting the government privileged access to encrypted devices, Comey insisted that the San Bernardino case boils down to one important terrorism investigation — not an effort to weaken encryption or create backdoors.
Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.
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