Democratic lawmaker asks FBI director to withdraw Apple unlocking case

Apple logos are seen on boxes in a shop in Munich downtown, Germany, January 27, 2016. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Democratic U.S. congressman on Tuesday asked the FBI to rescind its demand that Apple help unlock an iPhone linked to one of the San Bernardino shooters.

U.S. Representative Ted Lieu argued instead that Congress should ultimately decide whether American technology companies must grant authorities access to their products.

In a letter to Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey seen by Reuters, the California Democrat said that allowing a federal magistrate to order Apple to write new code granting investigators access to the phone relies on a “strained interpretation” of a centuries-old law and could set a dangerous precedent that would weaken encryption more broadly.

Lieu’s letter echoes the sentiment of some lawmakers on both sides of the debate who have said since the Apple standoff began that Congress should resolve the encryption debate, despite a longstanding legislative impasse on the issue.

The FBI declined to comment on the letter, but referred back to a Sunday blog post by Comey that said the case was not about precedent but “victims and justice.”

Last week, a federal magistrate in Los Angeles said that Apple must provide “reasonable technical assistance” to investigators seeking to unlock the data on an iPhone that had been used by San Bernardino shooter Rizwan Farook, who, with his wife, killed 14 people on Dec. 2.

In opposing the judge’s order, Apple has framed the dispute as an issue of digital privacy and security that affects all of its customers.

Lieu earlier this month introduced the ENCRYPT Act, which would prevent any state or locality from mandating that a “manufacturer, developer, seller, or provider” design or alter the security of a product so it can be decrypted or surveilled by authorities.

Reporting by Dustin Volz