FBI's 'No Data is New Data' iPhone Spin Stinks

The FBI says it has new data from Syed Farook's iPhone, and that new data is that there isn't any data, or at least no data that's of any use to the San Bernardino mass shooting investigation. The FBI is saying their analysis shows Mr. Farook didn't communicate with anyone during an 18 minute window that's unaccounted for following the shooting spree—something they should've known long before hacking into the phone.

iCloud backups from the iPhone had been in the FBI's hands since early January, and agents had access to the device's phone carrier records, too. Critics to the FBI's push to force Apple to help hack into the iPhone said that, along with other parts of the investigation, were enough to show there wasn't any relevant data hidden away on the device.

The iPhone became a hot button in the investigation when the FBI obtained a court order telling Apple to create a version of iOS that removed the safeguards preventing brute force attacks on lockscreen passcodes. the FBI and Department of Justice wanted the hackable iPhone operating system so they could look at the encrypted contents of the phone to see if it held data that wasn't available in the backups Apple provided.

Syed Farook was issued the iPhone by his employer, San Bernardino County Public Health Department. It was recovered after he was killed along with his wife by police following their shooting shooting spree where they killed 14 coworkers and injured 22 more.

When Apple told the FBI it didn't have any way to hack into the iPhone, the agency responded by obtaining a court order compelling Apple to create the less secure version of iOS. FBI Directory James Comey made the push for what was named GovtOS a very public event that even included an appearance by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Stephen Colbert's TV talk show.

Nothing to see here: FBI says no useful information on Syed Farook's iPhoneNothing to see here: FBI says no useful information on Syed Farook's iPhone

The FBI said it needed GovtOS because seeing the encrypted contents of Mr. Farook's iPhone was critical to the shooting investigation. Director Comey and Attorney General Lynch also said this was a one-off request, and that Apple wouldn't have any trouble keeping GovtOS safe from hackers. Apple countered that complying with the court order would lead to security weaknesses for all iPhone owners, and would set a precedent where other companies could be forced to weaken security protections in their products, too.

Director Comey dropped the legal fight with Apple when a still unnamed third party came forward with a hack the FBI purchased and used to get into the iPhone. The details of the 0-day exploit are still unknown, and the FBI is reticent to share the technique with Apple because they want to use it on other iPhones. The FBI has already agreed to unlock iPhones for other law enforcement agencies, shooting down its own argument that agents wanted to get into just the one phone.

In the midst of the FBI's public fight with Apple, San Bernardino police chief Jarrod Burguan confirmed no one was expecting to find anything of value on Mr. Farook's iPhone—which ultimately proved to be the case. Ultimately, the FBI wasted time, man hours, and thousands of dollars on its scheme to force Apple to compromise iPhone security and encryption.

It's been pretty clear for a couple weeks there wasn't any useful information on Mr. Farook's iPhone. It takes about a day to work through an iPhone's contents to find any useful leads, and had there been any, the FBI would've already used that to show why Apple should've complied with the court order. Instead, the agency waited weeks before spinning the news into something that equates to, "It's lucky we got into that iPhone because there wasn't anything there."

It's easy to say the FBI needed to see the contents of Syed Farook's iPhone to rule out other possible leads, but they could've done the same—and presumably did—with good police work. That only drives home the idea that targeting this iPhone was always about law enforcement getting a backdoor into our encrypted personal data, and the FBI used an emotionally charged case with trigger words such as mass shooting, terrorist, and Muslim as a platform to get what they wanted.

The FBI did finally manage to get into Mr. Farook's iPhone, but without Apple's help. Apple will likely find a way to patch the exploit the FBI bought, killing that little victory, too.

In the end, we're left with the FBI willing to sacrifice privacy and security for everyone, including our own government, in exchange for an easy pass into encrypted devices. That, and a single iPhone without any data that could've undermined digital security around the world.