The ongoing battle between Apple and the federal government over the issue of encryption has now reached Congress as lawmakers look into the impact of technology in deterring criminal and counterterrorism investigations.

During a hearing of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said that a final court ruling compelling Apple to provide the government with data from the iPhone of one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attacks could potentially serve as a precedent for other similar cases in the future.

He said that it can be used as a reference in such incidents where the FBI might need the help of technology companies in its investigation.

Comey's statements were slightly different from his earlier remarks where he said that the court order forcing Apple to unlock the gunman's iPhone was "unlikely to be a trailblazer" as far as serving as a precedent for future cases goes.

A federal court in California issued an order on Feb. 16 that compels Apple to develop special software that would effectively unlock the iPhone believed to be owned by Rizwan Farook, one of the attackers in the San Bernardino shootings. The smartphone maker, however, is contesting the court order.

Bruce Sewell, the general counsel for Apple, was also present at the congressional hearing to provide insight on the company's side of the argument.

Despite Comey's claims that the tool they need would only work on Farook's smartphone, Sewell said that software they were asked to develop would be usable with other iPhones as well.

Sewell argued that the issue is not about the San Bernardino investigation, but rather it deals with the safety and security of every Apple smartphone that is presently in use.

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and other committee members asked Comey to expound on his remarks that the case could serve as a legal precedent that would allow the FBI to access any encrypted gadget.

"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 this committee?" Conyers said.

Comey pointed out that the FBI was not seeking to expand the authority of the government for surveillance, but rather for the agency to be allowed to obtain valuable electronic information through existing legal authorities.

Photo: Ron Cogswell | Flickr 

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