Crypto wars: FBI and Apple renew the encryption row at congressional hearing
The congressional hearing was held to better understand the role of encryption in privacy and criminal investigations Getty Images

The FBI and Apple rekindled the controversial encryption debate on 19 April when they went before the US Congress to testify about the role encryption plays in privacy and criminal investigations. The House Energy and Commerce Committee heard the testimonials.

The congressional hearing saw FBI assistant director for science and technology Amy Hess and Apple general counsel Bruce Sewell, among others, putting forth their testimonies on encryption. The FBI was joined by other representatives from law enforcement, namely, Indiana police captain Charles Cohen and New York police intelligence chief Thomas Galati. Apple's Sewell was not alone either, he was joined by RSA president Amit Yoran, MIT researcher Daniel Weitzner and University of Pennsylvania associate professor Matt Blaze.

"We support strong encryption," said Hess. She also added that while the FBI appreciated the importance of encryption, tech firms would still need to figure out a way to cooperate with investigations by providing data when presented with a court order. When pressed about the FBI using a third party to break into the San Bernardino killer's iPhone, Hess said, "I do think certainly we need people who have those specialised skills. That said, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this," the CNet reported.

Cohen backed Hess' testimony but went further by adding that when Apple began offering in-built encryption, it created an unpredictable cybersecurity issue. The law enforcement representatives, while offering varying degrees of censorship on encryption and its role, all seemed to band together on one key issue — the unconditional cooperation of the tech community when investigating crimes.

However, Apple's Sewell testified that the tech giant has in the past, extensively cooperated with investigations and various law enforcement agencies. Sewell even went so far as to suggest that the door to further negotiation in the San Bernardino case was closed by the FBI themselves when they chose to cancel a meeting with Apple and filed a case against the firm instead.

Sewell also went on record to deny allegations of Apple providing the Chinese with their source code, according to a report by the TechCrunch. "We have not provided source code to the Chinese government. We did not have a key 19 months ago that we threw away," Sewell testified. "Those allegations are without merit." Sewell also indicated that Apple would be willing to work with law enforcement in the future, should the FBI wish to continue discussions about further cooperation from Apple outside the courtroom.

The hearing marked the second showdown in just months between the tech community and US law enforcement agency. It also indicates the value the US government places in resolving the long drawn out row over encryption.

However, the likelihood of the two parties coming to a commonly agreed upon solution is slim, especially given that some members of the Congress are all set to have a new encryption bill passed, which would legally compel tech firms to comply with law enforcement demands.