U.S. Attorney General Speaks Out on Apple Encryption Controversy

loretta lynchAt the RSA Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch addressed the controversy surrounding Apple’s refusal to break the encryption on an iPhone that belonged to San Bernardino terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook.

Lynch expressed surprise that since Apple has cooperated with FBI requests in the past—and continues to do so on other matters—that in this specific case Apple’s response has been to say “we’re done.”

The FBI wants Apple to turn off a security feature that disables the phone after 10 failed password attempts. When the phone is locked, the data is encrypted.

Lynch suggested there might be other ways to get the information the FBI is after, but she said Apple doesn’t want to discuss the issue with law enforcement any further. “I respect their position. Tim Cook and his views will be decided in court,” said Lynch.

While reluctant to criticize Apple or Cook directly, Lynch did ask the audience of security pros here whether they wanted to “let one company, no matter how beautiful their devices are, decide this issue for all us. We don’t do that for any other industry.”

Apple has also argued that breaking the encryption would not only be a significant technical challenge but a threat to both its First Amendment and Fifth Amendment rights. Lynch seemed dubious under questioning by Bloomberg TV Host Emily Chang that the right to free speech was an issue in this case.

“The commercial aspects of free speech is one question, another is what is the intersection of commercial and free speech as it relates to code? But those aren’t the issues driving this case or how we want to work with the tech industry to resolve this,” she said.

As for the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination Lynch said: “Apple is not a target in this matter. We’re not alleging Apple has done anything wrong, they are a third party in this.” 

In earlier prepared remarks, Lynch made a plea for more cooperation and partnership with the public sector to combat growing cyber threats. “We are committed to working closely with the private sector, some of our most fruitful conversations have been with you,” Lynch said.

She mentioned several examples, including the Coreflood botnet, where the cooperation of private sector companies was key to defeating threats. “We were able to free hundreds of thousands of computers from criminal control,” she said. “Our common goal is to deny criminals the safe harbor they seek on the Internet.”

Lynch noted that just last week the Department of Justice held meetings with experts at leading tech companies to discuss ways they can work together to combat violent extremists.

“We have created new channels for information sharing with the private sector to deter these threats,” said Lynch.

“There is no doubt in my mind, America’s technology sector is one of the greatest repositories of ingenuity in human history. We’d be remiss if we didn’t reach out for your help,” Lynch added. 

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