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FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on encryption balancing security and privacy.

WASHINGTON >> FBI Director James Comey likened Apple's built-in iPhone security to a "vicious guard dog" on Tuesday as Congress heard arguments over who can unlock smartphones belonging to criminal suspects — a high-stakes conflict between privacy and national security that has divided federal courts.

"There's already a door on that iPhone. We're asking Apple to take the vicious guard dog away and let us pick the lock," Comey said during a House Judiciary Committee hearing about digital encryption.

The hearing provides an extraordinary public forum for the Justice Department and Apple Inc. to stake out competing positions in a policy debate that both sides believe could have sweeping ramifications. Apple's top lawyer, Bruce Sewell, was also expected to testify Tuesday afternoon.

Long-simmering issue

Apple's recent opposition to bypassing security features for the government has moved the long-simmering debate to the mainstream. Sewell warned in prepared remarks that the government is forcing Apple to weaken the security of its products — the digital locker for millions of Americans' lives — with potentially catastrophic consequences.

"Some of you might have an iPhone in your pocket right now, and if you think about it, there's probably more information stored on that iPhone than a thief could steal by breaking into your house," Sewell said in prepared testimony. "The only way we know to protect that data is through strong encryption."


But U.S. law enforcement officials say evolving technologies aimed at protecting privacy have simultaneously weakened their ability to collect evidence in criminal investigations.

"Technology has allowed us to create zones of complete privacy, which sounds like a really awesome thing — unless you think about it," Comey said. He added that so-called "bad actors" may also operate in those same spaces.

Two weeks ago, a federal magistrate judge in California directed Apple to help the FBI break into a locked iPhone used by one of the shooters responsible for the San Bernardino, California, attack that killed 14 people.

That case involved an iPhone 5C owned by San Bernardino County and used by Syed Farook, who was a health inspector there. He and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, later died in a gun battle with police.

Comey acknowledged Tuesday there "was a mistake made" shortly after the attack, when the FBI asked the county to reset the password for Farook's iCloud account that stored backups of his phone's data. Had the password not been reset, the phone may have made a fresh backup available to investigators for further examination.

But, Comey warned, "the experts tell me there's no way we would have gotten everything off the phone from a backup."

On Monday, a federal judge in Brooklyn said the Obama administration couldn't force Apple to help it gain access to the phone.