About two hours into the questioning of FBI director James Comey at the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, things took a sharp turn for the dramatic.
Comey was there to testify to lawmakers about why the FBI needs Apple to provide a back door into the iPhone that belonged to San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook.
When Florida Congressman Ted Deutch asked Comey if the potential repercussions of such a back door falling into the wrongs hands were of valid concern, Comey responded by posing a hypothetical situation in which Apple's own engineers were kidnapped.
"Slippery slope arguments are always attractive, but I suppose you could say, 'Well, Apple's engineers have this in their head, what if they're kidnapped and forced to write software?'" Comey said before the committee. "That's where the judge has to sort this out, between good lawyers on both sides making all reasonable arguments."
Comey likely made the comment to highlight how Apple is capable of creating a back door to break the iPhone's encryption, a fact the company has admitted.
As it turns out, certain Apple engineers are given guidance on what to do if they are kidnapped. According to a source with knowledge of the company's security practices, engineers are told to "go along with the demands and do whatever's necessary to survive." Simply put, "Do whatever they ask. No heroes."
Still, forcing a kidnapped engineer to create a back door would be all but impossible due to security measures.
Apple splits the engineers who work on its software into different teams. To create what the FBI needs to break past the San Bernardino iPhone's passcode, kidnappers would have to force engineers from one team to create a specific build of the mobile operating system, iOS, and have engineers on another team digitally sign the build with its own master key.
The team that manages that master key is named Certificate Authority and only 5 engineers have the access that would be required to make the digital signature, according to the source. Most of actions that would be required take two engineers to authenticate, the source said.
Apple wasn't immediately available to comment for this story.
Regardless of the intended meaning behind Comey's comment, people on Twitter haven't been reacting to it favorably:
FBI director just asked what would happen if Apple engineers were kidnapped and forced to write a back door
FBI director just asked what would happen if Apple engineers were kidnapped and forced to write a back door— Alex Heath (@alexeheath) March 1, 2016
Oh my god, what country are we living in? Jesus. https://t.co/SUPwUqyLrV— Logan Leger (@lleger) March 1, 2016
Bad time to be an Apple engineer o.O https://t.co/aSgVErZ1sO— Circuit Static (@circuitStatic) March 1, 2016
Here's a transcript of the full exchange between Congressman Deutch and Comey for more context:
Deutch: "When this tool is created, the fear is that it might obviously be used by others, that there are many who would try to get their hands on it and then put at risk our information on our devices. How do you balance it? This is a really hard one for me. I don't see it as a binary option. So how do you do that?"
Comey: "I think it's a reasonable question. I also think it's something the judge will sort out. Apple's contention, which again I believe is made in good faith, is that there would be substantial risk around creating this software. On the government side, count us skeptical, although we could be wrong. I think the government's argument is that's your business to protect your software, your innovation. This would be usable in one phone. But again, that's something the judge is going to have to sort out. It's not an easy question."
Deutch: "If it's the case though, that it's usable in more than one phone, and it applies beyond there, then the public safety concerns that we may have, that a lot of us have, about what would happen if the bad guys got access to our phones and our children's' phones, in that case those are really valid aren't they?"
Comey: "Sure. I think the question we're going to have litigation about is how reasonable is that concern. Slippery slope arguments are always attractive, but I suppose you could say, 'Well, Apple's engineers have this in their head, what if they're kidnapped and forced to write software?' That's why the judge has to sort this out, between good lawyers on both sides making all reasonable arguments."