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Clinton And Sanders Equivocate On Encryption Battle Between Apple And FBI

“I am not a tech expert," Clinton says.

Posted on February 19, 2016, at 12:14 a.m. ET

David Becker / Reuters

As Apple and the FBI battle over encryption, Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton took care not to wade too far into the melee at a Las Vegas town hall event Thursday night.

After a judge ordered Apple this week to help federal law enforcement break into an iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooters, Apple refused, escalating a tense, multi-year standoff between Silicon Valley and the Obama administration.

At the town hall, hosted by MSNBC and Telemundo, Sanders and Clinton highlighted the complexity of the encryption debate, noting the needs of consumer privacy and the duties of law enforcement. But rather than choose sides, as the hosts pushed them to do, the candidates hedged.

“I see both sides, and I think most citizens see both sides,” Clinton said.

“Frankly I think there is a middle ground that can be reached,” Sanders also said.

Clinton and Sanders both emphasized the stakes of ignoring the pleas of law enforcement officials, who fear that robust encryption tools hinder their ability to prevent terror attacks and investigate crime, as in the case of San Bernardino, where a phone belonging to the couple remains locked and inaccessible.

“Clearly all of us would be dismayed if we learned that we could have picked up information about a potential terrorist act,” Sanders said.

Clinton added: “We want to catch and make sure there is nobody else out there whose information is on that cell phone.”

But the candidates also tried to capture the consequences of pervasive government surveillance. “Apple, understably, is worried about opening a door, creating what they call a backdoor into encryption,” Clinton said. She went on to describe the possible international ramifications of the judge’s order, in which Apple would be forced to field not only U.S. government requests, but demands for special access by China, Russia, and Iran.

“We don’t want privacy and encryption destroyed,” she said, adding that, as president, she would bring together tech companies and government agencies to devise a creative solution.

“I am not a tech expert,” she said.

When Sanders was asked whose side he was on, Apple’s or the FBI’s, he replied, “I'm on both.”

“Count me in as somebody who is a very strong civil libertarian who believes that we can fight terrorism without undermining our Constitutional rights and our privacy rights," Sanders said.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.