Technology

‘What if Apple engineers are kidnapped and forced to write software?’ – FBI Director

A couple hours into a House Judiciary Committee hearing on ‘The Encryption Tightrope: Balancing Americans’ Security and Privacy,’ yesterday things got a bit wonky. When FBI director James Comey was asked a question by a congressman, he came back with a strange hypothetical asking what would happen if an Apple engineer were kidnapped by an individual or group and forced to write code under duress.

'What if Apple engineers are kidnapped and forced to write software?' - FBI Director

FBI Director asked a fair question gave a bizarre answer

While there is little question that it will come down to the courts to decide whether Apple will be forced to build a back door for the FBI to access the iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, that doesn’t mean that Congress wont want to get in on the action. Might as well have a hearing, get a chance to be on TV, lord knows they’re certainly not passing any worthwhile legislation at present. They haven’t for some time so might as well pander to constituents and C-Span viewers.

After answering questions from representatives yesterday for a bit, Florida Congressman Ted Deutch asked the director about the potential problems that could arise if this figurative “back door” were to fall into the wrong hands, the answer he got was likely not what the congressman, nor most in attendance, expected.

“Slippery slope arguments are always attractive, but I suppose you could say, ‘Well, Apple’s engineers have this in their head, what if they’re kidnapped and forced to write software?'” Comey said before the committee. “That’s where the judge has to sort this out, between good lawyers on both sides making all reasonable arguments.”

Faced with that hypothetical, if I were Ted Deutch, you can bet I would have answered, “Well, I would probably call the director of the FBI.”

Apple can, of course, open the phone through a back door

Apple has made it quite clear that it’s capable of creating a back door. It just doesn’t want to do so. It’s encrypted for a reason and it’s not going to destroy its brand (perception) just because a single judge told the company to help the FBI.

This is a much bigger issue and I don’t blame Apple one bit.

The thing is, it’s not a good hypothetical. A single engineer, owing to security measures wouldn’t be able to do it. This despite that fact that Apple actually trains its engineers to cooperate with kidnappers in the event of an abduction and to “go along with the demands and do whatever is necessary to survive.” This according to a source familiar with Apple’s security training.

Apple splits the engineers who work on encryption into separate teams and certainly doesn’t tell the world who does what. This silly kidnapping hypothetical would require the knowledge of who does what and multiple kidnappings.

Apple hasn’t commented on this bizarre exchange, but you can bet it caused a few chuckles around its Cupertino, Calif. campus today.

Full Transcript of this exchange:

Deutch: “When this tool is created, the fear is that it might obviously be used by others, that there are many who would try to get their hands on it and then put at risk our information on our devices. How do you balance it? This is a really hard one for me. I don’t see it as a binary option. So how do you do that?”

Comey: “I think it’s a reasonable question. I also think it’s something the judge will sort out. Apple’s contention, which again I believe is made in good faith, is that there would be substantial risk around creating this software. On the government side, count us skeptical, although we could be wrong. I think the government’s argument is that’s your business to protect your software, your innovation. This would be usable in one phone. But again, that’s something the judge is going to have to sort out. It’s not an easy question.”

Deutch: “If it’s the case though, that it’s usable in more than one phone, and it applies beyond there, then the public safety concerns that we may have, that a lot of us have, about what would happen if the bad guys got access to our phones and our children’s’ phones, in that case those are really valid aren’t they?”

Comey: “Sure. I think the question we’re going to have litigation about is how reasonable is that concern. Slippery slope arguments are always attractive, but I suppose you could say, ‘Well, Apple’s engineers have this in their head, what if they’re kidnapped and forced to write software?’ That’s why the judge has to sort this out, between good lawyers on both sides making all reasonable arguments.”

Get our newsletter and our in-depth investor case studies all for free!