FBI lawyer says encryption has a purpose

After accessing a terrorist's iPhone without Apple's help, the FBI says it will take cues from the American people when it comes to the future of encryption.

FBI General Counsel James Baker said the bureau doesn't hate encryption. It just has to turn over every possible stone when fighting terrorism.

Addressing the International Association of Privacy Professionals' Global Privacy Summit on April 5, Baker downplayed the animosity between the FBI and Apple during the much-publicized court battle over unlocking an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters.

Media reports have "not [been] exactly representative" of the conversations between the FBI and the technology industry, which Baker said have been less combative and more mutually respectful.

In the case of the San Bernardino shooter's phone, the legal dispute was truncated when a mystery third party offered the FBI a way to get into the phone.

"We have not shared the solution with Apple to date," Baker said. FBI officials had access to the shooter's iCloud backups before they accessed the contents of the phone, but he declined to say whether they had recovered any new data. And he defended the fight with Apple as a necessary exercise in exploring legal options.

Baker also argued that law enforcement needs access to the contents of electronic communication, rather than just the metadata associated with it, to protect Americans from terrorism. "Content is hugely important," he said.

But ultimately, he said, the American people will need to decide the future of encryption. Do we want strong end-to-end encryption (the only kind that technologists say works), or do we want to give law enforcement keys to information?

Baker admitted that encryption has its appeal, especially in light of the massive hack of federal employee data in the Office of Personnel Management breach. "I wish that data had been encrypted," he said, adding that he and his family were among the breach's victims.

One audience member asked why the FBI doesn't focus on getting more resources, hiring technologists and trying to find vulnerabilities in relevant technology instead of pressuring companies to establish backdoors to their products.

"That is a reasonable approach," Baker said. "I don't know if that's the right approach."

He added, "We haven't taken that approach."