The FBI’s campaign against Apple has been called its biggest PR disaster in history, but were its efforts to hack the San Bernardino iPhone worth it? In the FBI’s own words, it’s still too soon to tell.
According to a senior FBI official, the organization won’t reveal what — if anything — it’s learned until it’s finished examining all the data on the handset.
“We’re now doing an analysis of that data, as we would in any other type of criminal terrorism investigation,’’ said James Baker, the FBI’s general counsel, on Tuesday. “That means we would follow logical leads.” As a result, he says it’s “simply too early” to know whether the iPhone at the heart of the San Bernardino investigation is going to be useful.
If the iPhone belonging to San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook doesn’t contain any evidence, it won’t come as a total surprise. While the standoff between Apple and the FBI was still raging, San Bernardino police chief Jarrod Burguan — who was part of the investigation last December — said that, “I think that there is a reasonably good chance that there is nothing of any value on the phone.”
The husband of a San Bernardino survivor — whose wife almost lost her life during the attack — additionally voiced his doubts that there is useful information on the confiscated handset; saying that his spouse, “also had an iPhone issued by the County [which] she did not use it for any personal communication.”
Of course, regardless of which side of this issue you come down on, the larger point is not about whether there happens to be evidence on the iPhone — but what it says about the government’s right to access this data.
If anything will be the legacy of this story (which, for the record, is certainly not over), it is that it marked another inflection point at which previously obscure topics like smartphone encryption and backdoors became public discussion fodder.
As the FBI’s James Baker said yesterday: “[This case] raises a whole range of issues in terms of how we’re going to handle it going forward. Normally we don’t have such detailed real-time public discussions of precise surveillance tools … There’s a significant amount of novelty to us.”
Hopefully it won’t stay a novelty after this.