Last week I laid out the case for Syed Farook's work-issued iPhone 5c being a bust in the FBI's investigation into last December's San Bernardino mass shooting, and now law enforcement is saying the same. That means the FBI and DOJ were more than willing to toss aside the digital security for iPhone owners around the world to unlock a smartphone they reasonably knew wouldn't give them any useful information.
Syed Farook's iPhone 5c is the ghost town of investigation leads
An unnamed law enforcement source told CBS News on Wednesday nothing of significance has been found on Mr. Farook's iPhone, but that the FBI is still looking at its contents. That amounts to three weeks worth of time spent looking for anything that could be a lead in a case where any useful information should've been found in the first 24 hours.
Mr. Farook's iPhone 5c became the center piece in the debate over whether or not companies should design their products so law enforcement can bypass built-in security and encryption measures after it was recovered when he and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, were killed in a shootout with police. The two opened fire on their San Bernardino County co-workers at a holiday party last December, killing 14 people and injuring 22 others.
The FBI enlisted Apple's help to recover data from the iPhone in January and obtained the most recent backups. Agents wanted, however, to see the encrypted contents of the phone, which Apple couldn't help with because there isn't a "master key" to unlock all iPhones. The FBI then obtained a court order telling Apple to make a version of iOS that removes the security features preventing brute force attacks on lockscreen passcodes.
Apple asked the court to toss out the order saying the government doesn't have the authority to force companies to create hacking tools for their own products, and that doing so would set a dangerous precedent where the privacy and security for people everywhere would be at risk.
The FBI dropped the fight when it found an unnamed party with an exploit that got them into the iPhone. Two weeks after revealing they had the hack, FBI agents still hadn't found anything on the phone they could use, and that hasn't changed with yet another week gone.
The fact that there isn't any useful information on Mr. Farook's phone isn't a surprise. He destroyed his personal phone and computer before the attack, likely wiping away any potentially useful information in the process. That's a pretty strong indicator he wasn't using his county-issued work phone for personal business, including plotting a mass shooting.
Weeks before the FBI hacked into the iPhone San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said there wasn't much chance of finding useful data, and his expectation seems to be spot on. Knowing law enforcement didn't expect to find anything on the iPhone even as they pushed to punch a hole through encryption for everyone backs up what I've said before: this case wasn't so much about seeing what's on Syed Farook's iPhone; it was about setting a precedent for giving the government a back door into everyone's encrypted smartphone.