FBI Director James Comey told a congressional panel on Tuesday that a final court ruling forcing Apple to give the FBI data from an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters would be “potentially precedential” in other cases where the agency might request similar cooperation from technology companies.
The remarks were a slight change to Comey's statement last week that ordering Apple to unlock the phone was "unlikely to be a trailblazer" for setting a precedent for other cases.
Tuesday's testimony from Comey and remarks before the same U.S. House Judiciary Committee by Apple's general counsel, Bruce Sewell, brought to Congress a public fight between Apple and the government over the dueling interests of privacy and security that has so far only been heard in the courts.
On Feb. 16, a federal court in California instructed Apple to write special software to unlock the iPhone 5c used by gunman Rizwan Farook, an order the company is contesting.
Sewell and Comey's remarks also clarified some areas where the two sides fundamentally disagree. Comey said the tool created for Farook's iPhone would not work on other models. But Sewell said the tool that Apple was being asked to create would work on any iPhone.
"This is not about the San Bernardino case. This is about the safety and security of every iPhone that is in use today," Sewell said.
Committee members seized on Comey's statement that the case could set a legal precedent allowing the agency access to any encrypted device.