FBI Director James Comey made headlines by posing a provocative question before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on The Encryption Tightrope: Balancing Americans’ Security and Privacy: “What if Apple engineers are kidnapped,” Comey posited, “and forced to write software?” By proposing the scenario where kidnapped engineers hack phones, Comey was highlighting that iPhones could be accessible to criminals in a way that is closed to law enforcement. In other words, the bad guys can do things law enforcement can’t — and that makes them hard to beat. That’s why Comey wants Apple to create a backdoor to phone data for law enforcement — to level the playing field.
Comey’s scenario may sound like a far-fetched Hollywood thriller script, but that’s hardly the case — as Comey is in position to know. Kidnapping is a very real threat that happens every day. Comey can also predict the results of that scenario, since he’s familiar with general corporate security policy. As The Hacker News reports, a person familiar with Apple’s security practices says that in the event of an abduction Apple employees are instructed to “go along with the demands and do whatever is necessary to survive.” In other words, tell what you know, deliver access, don’t be a hero. This alleged Apple instruction, as described, is the default position throughout the tech industry.