FBI director: iPhone case could set troubling tone for activists

FBI Director James Comey is seen in a reflection as he testifies in a House Appropriations hearing on "World Wide Threats" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 25, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
FBI Director James Comey is seen in a reflection as he testifies in a House Appropriations hearing on "World Wide Threats" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 25, 2016.

FBI Director James Comey acknowledged Thursday that forcing Apple to give the federal government access to one of the San Bernardino attacker's phones would set a legal precedent that privacy activists might find troubling.

"This is the hardest problem I've seen in government," Comey told the House Appropriations Committee.

But, Comey added, they owe it to the victims to find out what happened during the "missing 19 minutes" between when the radicalized Islamic couple killed 14 people in a government building in December and when the couple was killed by cops.

As Comey testified, Apple asked a judge to vacate a California magistrate judge's Feb. 16 order to break into the encrypted iPhone used by Syed Farook saying the FBI is seeking "dangerous power."

Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat who represents Silicon Valley, agreed. "What the FBI requests will echo beyond this case," he said. "Can you promise this will be the only time?'

Comey said he couldn't and added, "The American people need to decide how we ought to be."

Comey also made it clear that what they were requesting was to unlock and inspect just one phone. And he noted the code they want from Apple is for an outdated iPhone 5C that fewer and fewer people use.

Earlier, Apple CEO Tim Cook said it would be "bad for America" if his company complied with the FBI and said they are ready to fight the government all the way to the Supreme Court.

Rep. David Jolly, a Florida Republican, said he believes Apple should comply with the FBI and said Cook could have "blood on his hands."

This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com.