FBI director James Comey says that the debate around digital rights shouldnt be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living.
FBI director James Comey says that the debate around digital rights shouldn't be resolved "by corporations that sell stuff for a living." Ellica / Shutterstock.com

Apple is fighting the FBI over a request to break into an iPhone recovered after the San Bernadino shooting. Today, FBI director James Comey posted a statement that urges everyone to calm down over the fundamental question this raises: "Do [American citizens] have a right to security?"

The letter arrived one day before digital rights group Fight for the Future plans to protest the FBI outside Apple stores all over the country.

Read Comey below:

The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice. Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined. We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. That’s what this is. The American people should expect nothing less from the FBI.

The particular legal issue is actually quite narrow. The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve. We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That’s it. We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land. I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that. Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn’t. But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead.

Reflecting the context of this heart-breaking case, I hope folks will take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending, but instead use that breath to talk to each other. Although this case is about the innocents attacked in San Bernardino, it does highlight that we have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure—privacy and safety. That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living. It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before. We shouldn’t drift to a place—or be pushed to a place by the loudest voices—because finding the right place, the right balance, will matter to every American for a very long time.

So I hope folks will remember what terrorists did to innocent Americans at a San Bernardino office gathering and why the FBI simply must do all we can under the law to investigate that. And in that sober spirit, I also hope all Americans will participate in the long conversation we must have about how to both embrace the technology we love and get the safety we need.

It's no surprise that Comey would try to assure everyone that this isn't a big deal. But it is.

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In 2013, the founder of Lavabit, a secure e-mail service used by Edward Snowden, decided to shut down the business rather than turn over the service's encryption keys to the government. Ladar Levison, Lavabit's founder, had received a court order called a "pen register" that also came with a gag order—meaning Levison couldn't even tell anyone that the government had made such a request.

Levison's principled stand against the government's court order made headlines. Quite a few people also speculated that because of the size of the company—and the fact that it wasn't publicly owned—allowed Levison to act in a way that a bigger company (like Apple, for example!) wouldn't.

The fact that Apple is now resisting the FBI's request shows that the battle over digital rights isn't just conversation fodder for a niche of privacy and security wonks. This is a mainstream debate with real consequences for anyone who uses Apple products or anything like them. So in one respect, Comey is actually quite right: this issue isn't something that should be resolved by "corporations that sell stuff for a living," nor should it be resolved by the FBI. The conversation about the digital rights of American citizens is long overdue, and we should make it a legislative priority before decisions are made for us.