WASHINGTON — FBI Director James Comey likened impenetrable digital encryption to a "vicious guard dog" Tuesday, as a high-stakes fight between privacy and national security moved from the courts to Congress.
"There's already a door on that iPhone. We're asking Apple to take the vicious guard dog away and let us pick the lock," Comey said before the House Judiciary Committee.
Tuesday's hearing comes amid two significant — and conflicting — court rulings in New York and California on whether Apple can be forced to help the FBI gain access to locked phones.
The hearing, which was also to feature Apple's top lawyer, is providing an extraordinary public forum for the Justice Department and Apple Inc. to stake out competing positions. The company's recent opposition has brought a long-simmering debate over digital privacy rights and national security to the mainstream.
A judge in California two weeks ago directed Apple to help the FBI hack into a locked iPhone used by one of the gunmen responsible for the San Bernardino, California attacks that killed 14 people. But on Monday, a judge in Brooklyn said the Obama administration couldn't force Apple to help it gain access to the phone.
Comey acknowledged Tuesday that either decision could set a precedent for other courts.
The California case involves an iPhone 5C owned by San Bernardino County and used by Syed Farook, who was a health inspector. He and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people during a Dec. 2 attack that was at least partly inspired by the Islamic State group. The couple later died in a gun battle with police.