The director of the FBI just admitted that 'a mistake was made' with the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone

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Apple, FBI Make Their Case to Lawmakers

FBI Director James Comey admitted a "mistake was made" with the San Bernardino investigation during a surprisingly contentious hearing held by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

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Comey and the FBI are seeking to force Apple to build custom software to access encrypted data on a terrorist's iPhone.

New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler asked Comey about whether the San Bernardino iPhone had its iCloud password changed, preventing the device from backing up to accessible Apple servers. Comey was forced to admit that the password was changed at the FBI's request, and called it a "mistake."

It wasn't the only difficult question that Comey fielded on Monday.

Democrat John Conyers also asked a very pointed question: "Given that Congress has explicitly denied you that authority so far, can you appreciate our frustration that this case appears to be little more than an end-run around committee?"

See images from the hearing:

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The director of the FBI just admitted that 'a mistake was made' with the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 1: Apples General Council Bruce Sewell testifies before a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on Apple's denial of the FBI's request to provide a way to hack into one of the San Bernardino terrorists phones at the Capitol in Washington, USA on March 1, 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 1: FBI Director James Comey testifies before a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on Apple's denial of the FBI's request to provide a way to hack into one of the San Bernardino terrorists phones at the Capitol in Washington, USA on March 1, 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 1: FBI Director James Comey testifies before a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on Apple's denial of the FBI's request to provide a way to hack into one of the San Bernardino terrorists phones at the Capitol in Washington, USA on March 1, 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 1: Apples General Council Bruce Sewell testifies before a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on Apple's denial of the FBI's request to provide a way to hack into one of the San Bernardino terrorists phones at the Capitol in Washington, USA on March 1, 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 1: Apples General Council Bruce Sewell testifies before a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on Apple's denial of the FBI's request to provide a way to hack into one of the San Bernardino terrorists phones at the Capitol in Washington, USA on March 1, 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 1: (from left to right) Bruce Sewell, Apples General Counsel, Susan Landau, Professor, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Cyrus Vance, District Attorney, New York County are sworn in during a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on the Apple's denial of the FBI's request to provide a way to hack into one of the San Bernardino terrorists phones at the Capitol in Washington, USA on March 1, 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 1: Apples General Council Bruce Sewell sets up an iPad Pro before testifying before a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on Apple's denial of the FBI's request to provide a way to hack into one of the San Bernardino terrorists phones at the Capitol in Washington, USA on March 1, 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 1: Apples General Council Bruce Sewell talks with colleagues in the chambers before testifying at a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on Apple's denial of the FBI's request to provide a way to hack into one of the San Bernardino terrorists phones at the Capitol in Washington, USA on March 1, 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 1: FBI Director James Comey testifies before a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on Apple's denial of the FBI's request to provide a way to hack into one of the San Bernardino terrorists phones at the Capitol in Washington, USA on March 1, 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 1: FBI Director James Comey is sworn in during a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on Apple's denial of the FBI's request to provide a way to hack into one of the San Bernardino terrorists phones at the Capitol in Washington, USA on March 1, 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 01: Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) listens to testimony from Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey during a House Judiciary Committee hearing titled 'The Encryption Tightrope: Balancing Americans' Security and Privacy,' on Capitol Hill, March 1, 2016 in Washington, DC. Apple is fighting a court order requiring them to assist the FBI in opening the encrypted iPhone belonging to San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on the encryption of the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino attackers on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on March 1, 2016. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 1: Bruce Sewell, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Apple, Inc., arrives to testify at a House Judiciary Committee hearing titled 'The Encryption Tightrope: Balancing Americans' Security and Privacy,' on Capitol Hill, March 1, 2016 in Washington, DC. Apple is fighting a court order requiring them to assist the FBI in opening the encrypted iPhone belonging to San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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The question revealed Conyers' deep skepticism for the FBI's court order to Apple, and implies Conyers believes that Comey is only going through the courts because legislators have declined to write laws requiring technology companies to provide backdoors.

"First of all I don't recall a time where I've asked for a particular legislative fix. In fact, the administration's position has been they're not seeking legislation at this time," Comey replied.

Apple has insisted that the issue over one of the San Bernardino shooter's locked iPhone is one that would be best handled by Congress. Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, and other members of the House Judiciary Committee, appear to agree with Apple.

In fact, Representatives from of both parties seemed generally skeptical of Comey's testimony on Tuesday.

  • Ohio Republican Steve Chabot cornered Comey into admitting that smaller businesses than Apple might be severely burdened by similar requests.
  • California Republican Darell Issa focused on berating Comey about whether the FBI even understood on a technical level what it was asking Apple to do.
  • California Democrat Zoe Lofgren corrected a Comey assertion that Apple's iCloud had not been hacked.
  • Texas Republican Ted Poe said that "Congress should decide this, not the judiciary system," and pressed Comey to answer. (He said there's a "huge role for Congress to play.")
  • Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz wondered why the government can force a private company to do its bidding, and pressed further whether the FBI "screwed things up" by changing the phone's iCloud password. Comey disagreed with that characterization.
  • Chaffetz also talked about surveillance in general, bringing up Stingray spying tools.
  • Democrat Judy Chu from California asked whether foreign governments can use technical backdoors as well, and cited a researcher who says the government has several different resources to unlock phones. (Comey said that the FBI has looked into those tools, but don't have a way to break an iPhone running iOS 9.)

One congressman who was skeptical of Apple's position was South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, who compared Apple's responsibility to surgeons, who can preserve evidence while removing bullets from a body. He said that Apple "has already weighed the balance" and decided the government shouldn't be able to get into a terrorist's phone.

Comey is currently testifying. Click here to refresh the page.

Apple's top lawyer, Bruce Sewell, will testify on a panel later on Tuesday, joined by Cyrus Vance, district attorney for Manhattan, and Susan Landau, a former Google privacy analyst and current professor.

You can watch the entire hearing here:

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