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FBI director on Apple clash: 'Take a deep breath' in debate over privacy and safety

The FBI is resorting to the courts to force Apple to unlock the San Bernardino gunman’s iPhone not to “set a precedent or send any kind of message,” but to conduct a complete investigation, FBI Director James Comey said Sunday.

In a plainspoken statement, Comey said that the scale of the San Bernardino attacks, which left 14 people dead and 22 people injured warranted the pursuit of all leads, including reviewing Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone 5c.

"I hope folks will take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending, but instead use that breath to talk to each other," Comey said. 

“We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist's passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly.  That's it,” Comey said. “We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land.”

Comey’s statement served as a rejoinder to comments made earlier in the day by Apple attorney Ted Olson, who predicted the FBI’s request would unleash “Pandora’s box” and compromise the privacy of millions of Apple customers.

“There’s no limit to what the government could require Apple to do if it succeeds this way,” Olson told host George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week.” But Apple “has to draw the line at re-creating code, changing its iPhone, putting its engineers and creative talents to destroy the iPhone as it exists,” Olson said.

The FBI has been investigating the Dec. 2 attacks by Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, who stormed into the Inland Regional Center and gunned down his coworkers in the San Bernardino County Public Health Department.

Investigators believe Farook’s smartphone, issued to him by the county, “may contain critical communications” around the time of the shooting. The FBI has a warrant to search the iPhone, but Apple’s encryption technology erases the phone’s data after 10 failed attempts to break the passcode.

After the San Bernardino shooting, Apple provided the FBI with data from Farook's work iPhone that he had backed up remotely. But he did not save to iCloud from Oct. 19 to the date of the attack, leaving about seven weeks of potential messages, texts and photos for investigators to review.

“Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists.  Maybe it doesn’t,” Comey said Sunday. “But we can't look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don't follow this lead.”

Last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of Riverside ordered Apple to aide the FBI in unlocking the phone. Hours later, Apple CEO Tim Cook released an open letter to Apple customers saying that it would resist the judge’s order.  Cook said the federal government has asked the company “to build a backdoor to the iPhone,” a request which it considers “too dangerous to create.”

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“The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true,” Cook wrote. “Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

The U.S. attorney’s office responded by filing a motion to compel Apple’s compliance with the judge's order. The government said it was not asking for a “master key” to Apple's phones but for software that opened this particular iPhone. Once created, the government said, Apple could keep the software and destroy it after the phone was unlocked.

In his statement Sunday, Comey said the debate over Farook’s phone showed how “awesome new technology….creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure – privacy and safety.”

Urging the public to recall the "innocent Americans" who were victimized, he said it was not up to corporations, nor the FBI, to reconcile those two priorities. “It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before,” Comey said.

Times staff writers Christopher Goffard in Los Angeles and Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.

Twitter: @matthjourno

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