WASHINGTON (CN) - Members of a House committee peppered FBI Director James Comey with questions Thursday morning about the agency's legal battle with Apple to gain access to the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone.
Top brass of the nation's intelligence agencies gathered before the House Select Committee on Intelligence to discuss worldwide threats, but lawmakers zeroed in on Comey to tease apart the thorny issue of ever-increasing encryption.
"There is a broader policy question that is far larger than any individual case that we all have to grapple with," Comey told the committee.
"The larger question is not going to be answered in the courts and shouldn't be. Because it's really about who do we want to be as a country, and how do we want to govern ourselves," he added.
That larger question came to the fore during the hearing.
"The court's ruling, even if narrowly tailored to the particular facts of this case, will have ripple effects that will significantly impact the law enforcement community, the intelligence community, the business community and all of us individually," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, said. "We need to honestly acknowledge the complexity and not engage in absolutes. Privacy and liberty can and must coexist."
A federal judge has ordered Apple to disable the auto-erase function on the iPhone belonging to San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 and injured 22 at a county holiday party in December.
Apple has dug in its heels to fight the order, saying that complying with the order would create a "master key" that law enforcement would use to unlock "hundreds of devices already in custody.
Comey said the FBI asked Apple to do this to prevent the phone from automatically deleting its contents after too many wrong password guesses. The court also ordered Apple to disable a function that throws up a delay between tries to speed up the process, which the company will do "through remote pulsing of codes to the phone," Comey said.
Comey could not recall another instance in which this particular request had been made.
"I don't think so given the nature of this particular phone and its operating system. It's possible but I'm not aware of it," he said.
When pressed by Schiff on whether the request contained a limiting principle or could open Pandora's box, Comey said lawyers and technical experts are better equipped to address that question. He did, however, offer his own understanding.
"This particular operating system is sufficiently unusual that it's unlikely to be a trailblazer," Comey said, adding that the technology itself is the limiting principle in this case.
Apple sharply disagrees with Comey's assessment.
"In the wrong hands, this software - which does not exist today - would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession," Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a letter penned to the company's customers.
Comey conceded that it is a difficult issue.
"This is the hardest question I've seen in government. And it's going to require a negotiation and a conversation," Comey said. "But I'm very keen to keep the bureau out of the policy-making business."
Comey said the agency must do a complete investigation following the murder of 14 people in San Bernardino, which would include looking at the contents of Farook's phone. But he said the agency also has a responsibility to explain the costs of universally stronger encryption to the American people.
However, he first expressed his love for the technology.
"There are tons of benefits. I love encryption - I love privacy. When I hear corporations saying, 'We're going to take you to a world where no one can look at your stuff,' part of me thinks that's great, I don't want anyone looking at my stuff," he said.
But he said he pauses to consider the role law enforcement plays in keeping American safe. The agency rescues kids and entire neighborhoods from terrorists, he added, noting that it does much of that through court-ordered search warrants of mobile devices.
The world will not end if that becomes impossible, he said.
One lawmaker questioned if the world might end if it becomes more possible.
"There's a legitimate worry, though, that a decision in favor of the FBI could be a narrow in to a very wide web," Rep. Jim Himes, D-Connecticut, said. "If the FBI prevails, Apple will be required to write some code at the behest of the government. My question is, where does this authority end?"
Comey deferred to the Justice Department and the FBI's legal team to answer what he called "reasonable questions."
"The San Bernardino litigation is not about us trying to send a message or establish some precedent," Comey said. "It's about trying to be competent in investigating something that is an active investigation. And so I don't know how lawyers and judges will think about what is the limiting principle on the legal side. I just don't know."
But what if that code Apple must write falls into terrorist hands and it "gets out into the wild?" Himes asked.
"The code the judge has ordered apple to write works only on this one phone," Comey said. "And so, the idea of it getting out in the wild and working on my phone or your phone, the experts tell me is not a real thing."
Comey stressed that Apple has been very helpful through the process.
"I want to be sure people understand there are no demons in this dispute or the larger dispute. Apple's been very cooperative. We just got to a place where they were not willing to offer the relief that the government was asking for."
The stakes are high, Comey said, noting that the agency is increasingly unable to "read the communications of terrorists, gang-bangers, pedophiles - all different kinds of bad people."
Comey said metadata is useful - information about who contacted whom, but "there's no substitute for being able to have a judge order access to the content."
"Our job is not to tell the American people what to do about it. We're just here to tell you there is a big problem, and that darkness is going to grow and grow and grow and change our world," he said.
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