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A congressional committee chaired by southwest Michigan U.S. Rep. Fred Upton is inviting FBI Director James Comey and Apple CEO Tim Cook to testify amid an escalating debate over encryption technology and security.

A federal magistrate this week ordered Apple to help the FBI hack an iPhone used by the gunman in the San Bernandino, California, mass shootings in December. The company is fighting the order, saying it will not create a “back door” that could be exploited to access data on other phones.

Upton and other members of the Committee on Energy and Commerce committee wrote Cook and Comey on Friday inviting them to testify before a subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. They requested a reply by Feb. 24.

“You have argued that strong encryption measures are necessary to protect the sensitive personal, health and financial data that are entrusted to your product by your customers,” according to the committee letter sent to Cook. “In turn, FBI Director James Comey has stated publicly that the law enforcement community is unable to access critical evidence in criminal and terrorism investigations because such information is encrypted.

“These are difficult issues that present complicated questions relating to privacy, security and law enforcement’s need to access evidence to further its investigations.”

The letters were signed by Upton, a Republican from St. Joseph; ranking Democrat Frank Pallone of New Jersey; Republican subcommittee chairman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania; and subcommittee ranking Democrat Diana DeGette of Colorado.

The ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym represents a significant victory for the Justice Department, which last year decided not to pursue a legislative fix to address encryption but has now scored a win instead in the courts.

Federal officials until now have struggled to identify a high-profile case to make its concerns resonate. But in siding with the government, Pym, a former federal prosecutor, was persuaded that agents investigating the worst terror attack on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11 airplane attacks had been hobbled by their inability to unlock the county-owned phone used by Syed Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in December before dying in a police shootout.

The dispute places Apple, one of the world’s most respected companies, on the side of protecting the digital privacy of an accused Islamic terrorist.

“We have no sympathy for terrorists,” Cook said this week.

Apple has provided default encryption on its iPhones since 2014, allowing any device’s contents to be accessed only by the user who knows the phone’s passcode. The phone Farook was using, running the newest version of Apple's iPhone operating system, was configured to erase data after 10 consecutive, unsuccessful unlocking attempts.

The magistrate ordered Apple to create special software the FBI could load onto the phone to bypass the self-destruct feature. The FBI wants to be able to try different combinations in rapid sequence until it finds the right one.

joosting@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/jonathanoosting

The Associated Press contributed.

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