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FBI says better way needed to break encryption

Posted: 9:43 AM, Apr 19, 2016
Updated: 2016-04-19 17:46:21Z

WASHINGTON (AP) — Hiring outside contractors to help the FBI break into locked iPhones isn't the only solution, a top FBI official told Congress Tuesday, saying there's no "one-size-fits-all" answer for law enforcement to recover encrypted communications.

Amy Hess said that while the Justice Department opted for "one potential solution" last month when it enlisted a still-unidentified third party to access the phone used by one of the San Bernardino, California, attackers, that path is not the only answer. Each decision must be made case by case, she said.

"We really need the cooperation of industry, we need the cooperation of academia, we need the cooperation of the private sector to come up with solutions," said Hess, who is executive assistant director of the FBI's science and technology branch, which oversees the development of surveillance technologies.

Hess, appearing alongside officials from local law enforcement agencies, testified before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Apple's general counsel, Bruce Sewell, was expected to testify at an afternoon panel.

The hearing comes amid an ongoing dispute between law enforcement and Silicon Valley about how to balance consumer privacy against the need for police and federal agents to recover communications and eavesdrop on suspected terrorists and criminals. It also comes as the Senate considers a bill that would effectively prohibit unbreakable encryption and require companies to help the government access data on a computer or mobile device with a warrant.

The long-simmering clash escalated in February after a judge in California directed Apple to help the FBI break into the phone used by Syed Farook, who along with his wife killed 14 people on Dec. 2 before dying in a shootout with police. The Justice Department last month said a third party had approached it with a way into the phone, effectively ending that court case. Another legal fight over a phone in a separate drug case is still pending in Brooklyn.

Asked about the FBI's reliance on a third party to get into the phone, and its inability to do so on its own, Hess said that to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies, "we do require services of specialized skills that we can only get through private industry."