Attorney General turns up the heat in public war with Apple
The nation's top law officer called for dialogue with the tech industry, but also turned up the heat on Apple for refusing to help the FBI unlock an encrypted iPhone used by an extremist mass killer in San Bernardino.
"One risk is making this all about Apple when in reality it's about all of us," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told an audience at a major cybersecurity industry conference in San Francisco on Tuesday.
"We have to decide," she added. "Do we let one company, no matter how great a company, no matter now beautiful their devices — do we let one company decide this issue for all of us? Do we let one company say this is how investigations are going to be conducted?"
Lynch spoke as top officials of the FBI and Apple were testifying on the same topic before Congress. Meanwhile a courtroom collision is looming over Apple's challenge to a federal court order that the company says would make all iPhones vulnerable to hacking by government authorities and criminals alike.
During her speech at the annual RSA security conference, Lynch echoed comments earlier in the day by National Security Agency director Mike Rogers, who told attendees that the government wants to work collaboratively with the tech industry to fight extremists and malicious hackers.
But in an on-stage interview that followed her prepared remarks, Lynch reiterated the government's argument that it's only asking Apple for limited assistance, as it has in previous cases where the tech company has helped authorities obtain information from suspect's iPhones.
When asked if she saw any middle ground in the dispute, Lynch told Bloomberg News anchor Emily Chang, "For me, the middle ground is to divulge what the law requires." Lynch went on to compare the government's demand to a routine search warrant that allows police to enter a home and look for evidence of a crime.
Some legal experts dispute that characterization and argue that a U.S. magistrate's order in the San Bernardino case oversteps the government's authority. Apple's argument was echoed Monday by a different U.S. magistrate, who ruled in a New York case that the government had no legal justification for demanding Apple's help with a drug suspect's iPhone.
Lynch said she was disappointed by the New York ruling, which the government has said it will appeal. While the cases involve the same legal issues, the New York ruling is not binding in the San Bernardino case.
While Lynch's tone was conciliatory, her remarks showed the government isn't giving up in the battle to frame the debate and win over public support. Another Obama administration official, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, echoed some of Lynch's sentiments in a separate San Francisco speech Tuesday when he also called for government-industry cooperation on encryption issues.
But Carter warned against letting one case determine future policy and said a law hastily written in "anger or grief" would be the wrong approach.
Taking a jab at Apple's reputation for innovation, Lynch said she was surprised by its refusal to reconsider its position. "It's a great company," she said, adding that Apple's stance seemed to be "we're going to innovate, we're going to move forward, but in this one area we're done."
Lynch drew applause at the end of her speech, but her stance was not widely shared among other tech industry executives and computer security experts making presentations. Several previous speakers warned of the dangers of weakening encryption. And earlier in the day, a top Microsoft executive drew applause when he said his company will support Apple in the looming court battle.
Speaking at the same conference, Microsoft president Brad Smith argued that companies have an obligation to protect customer data against government overreach. He also cautioned that the balance between privacy and law enforcement concerns should be struck by Congress — "not by those of us who are unelected, but by people who are."
Smith criticized Lynch's Justice Department for attempting to use what he called an outdated law — one as old as the Constitution and last amended more than a century ago — in the San Bernardino case. Technology shouldn't be above the law, he said, but added that courts shouldn't be setting rules for "21st century technology" using laws "from the era of the adding machine."
Smith agreed with Lynch that the tech industry has a responsibility to help keep the public safe." After the extremist attacks in Paris, he said, Microsoft quickly provided information in response to lawful orders from authorities who were tracking shooting suspects who were then at large. "We do play our role as an industry," Smith said.
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