No, The FBI Does Not 'Need' The Info On Farook's iPhone; This Is Entirely About The Precedent

from the stop-saying-that dept

Over and over again as people keep talking about the Apple / FBI encryption stuff, I keep seeing the same line pop up. It’s something along the lines of “but the FBI needs to know what’s on that phone, so if Apple can help, why shouldn’t it.” Let’s debunk that myth. The FBI absolutely does not need to know what’s on that phone. It might not even care very much about what’s on that phone. As the Grugq ably explained last week, there’s almost certainly nothing of interest on the phone. As he notes, Farook destroyed his and his wife’s personal phones, indicating that if there were anything truly important, he would have destroyed the last phone too. Also:

FBI already has a massive amounts of data, all of which indicates that Farook and Malik were not in contact with a foreign terrorist organisation, nor were they in contact with any other unknown terrorists.

Even if, despite all evidence to the contrary, Farook and Malik were somehow in invisible traceless contact with an ISIS handler, that handler would not have revealed information about other cells, because that would violate the most basic tenet of security???need to know.

Other information, including things like who they were in contact with could be obtained from other sources — either service providers for metadata or from the phones of those they were in contact with.

There’s another post by forensic scientist Jonathan Zdziarski that provides even more reasons why there’s almost certainly nothing of use on the phone — noting that Farook left the “track my phone” feature on, even though it’s on the same settings page as turning off the iCloud backup, which the FBI claims he turned off.

But let’s get beyond even that. Assume that there actually is something interesting or useful on the phone. That still doesn’t mean the FBI “needs” the information. In basically any situation where crime has occurred, there is a ton of information that might be useful, but that is far from mandatory. Hell, in this case alone, there were the destroyed phones. It’s much more likely that there would have been useful information on those phones. But no one’s talking about how the FBI “needs” that information, because everyone knows the FBI can’t get it. And, since much of the planning for this attack must have happened between Farook and Malik in their home, the FBI is never going to know what they said to each other as they sat around the kitchen table, or on the sofa, or in bed. And, again, no one is upset about this information that is “not accessible” because there’s always information that’s not accessible.

In some cases, it’s because it was destroyed. In some cases, it’s because it was verbal communications that were never stored anywhere. In some cases, it’s because people communicated in a code that only they know. In some cases, it’s because information wasn’t found. There are dozens of reasons why information that might be useful isn’t accessible to the government during criminal investigations.

And you know what: it’s not the end of the world.

Hell, in almost every criminal case, there’s a ton of missing information. The cases are about taking all the evidence that they do have and making inferences on the rest. And no one whines about that.

So why are so many people insisting that the FBI “needs” the information on this particular phone?

There are a few possible reasons, but none of them are very convincing or compelling. There’s just the simple fact that the information is there and, it appears, if Apple is forced to create this special operating system (creatively called FBiOS by some), it will remove the security features that otherwise block the FBI from brute forcing Farook’s passcode. Of course, no one seems to be mentioning that if he has a really long passcode, brute forcing it might not work either (perhaps because that’s unlikely). But, again, that’s another situation under which the information wouldn’t actually be available.

Honestly, the only reason that the FBI wants to force Apple to create the special operating system for this particular phone is the precedent that it can go to court and force a company to build special hacking tools to remove security features from customers. That’s a big deal. The information on the phone is almost certainly not a big deal at all.

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Comments on “No, The FBI Does Not 'Need' The Info On Farook's iPhone; This Is Entirely About The Precedent”

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Quiet Lurcker says:

Not Quite the Only Reason

Likely, you are right, @Mike Masnick. The timing on the motion to compel Apple to assist the FBI reeks of … something not right.

But after looking at some of the other stories coming out in connection with this iPhone, I have to wonder if by some chance some person or persons in the FBI screwed up, someone else in the agency became aware of the screw-up and they’re now trying to compel Apple to help them decrypt the iPhone at least in part as a means of covering up or diverting attention from the screw-up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not Quite the Only Reason

Apart from the necessity to consider the good old “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” in connection with a government agency, could this be connected to all the flag waving we’ve been seeing in the War on encryption, as in the FBI framing this as a tech company putting themselves on the terrorists side by employing encryption and not handing the Bureau the keys?

Angrywebmaster (profile) says:

Re: Not Quite the Only Reason

Basically, yes. The FBI screwed up by the numbers. First, at the request of the FBI, they changed the password on the Icloud account, breaking the connection, (if any), to the phone.

Then they released the apartment and allowed the drooling hordes to rampage through the place. When Apple was contacted, they suggested taking the phone to a trusted site, (Such as the terrorists home), and forcing a backup.


Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Not Quite the Only Reason

An internal FBI screw-up is certainly a more benign explanation, albeit it means we’re continuing to shamble our way into total-police-state territory. (We shamble a lot.)

Incidentally, your Wired Magazine link is inaccessible to those of us who use ad-blockers. We need a new category of behind paywall: didn’t read.

Angrywebmaster (profile) says:

Opposition to the FBI crossing many lines

I’ve been following this over the weekend, and it’s interesting to see that both the Barking Moonbats and the Ultra Conservative Wingnuts are generally in agreement on this case.

Both sides generally are opposed to forcing Apple to break their encryption.

What I’ve been seeing are the known Statists, (Those who think the state/Federal Government’s needs come first), on both sides saying Apple should be forced to break the system, and also that all encryption used by non-government entities should be banned or at least have a backdoor in it.

There may be hope for us yet. 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Opposition to the FBI crossing many lines

“There may be hope for us yet. :)”

Just because people are finally in agreement for once means nothing.

We still have yet to show if we will do anything when the government tells us all to “take a fucking hike, we are the government and we need to just exactly shut the fuck up and be good subservient serfs instead.”

Whatever, this nation is falling and a lot of people have stuck their fucking head in the dirt. History, yet again, is repeating itself!

David says:

Re: Re:

Uh, the Bill of Rights spells out rights the people have against their government. Why would your government be interested in defending them?

The government is sworn to heed them, not love them. If they step over the line, it’s the job of the citizens and the courts and the press to put them back in place and remind them of the oaths they took.

And the citizens and the courts and the press are, overall, doing an abysmal job in the U.S., letting the government run loose and wild.

Michael Long (profile) says:


Apple’s stance, and the real question, is whether or that this is a lawful request.

A court can issue a warrant to search my premises. They could, potentially, hire someone to attempt to break into my safe. But they don’t have the right to go to the manufacturer of that safe and require them to build a device that lets someone else crack the safe they can’t figure out how to crack otherwise.

That’s judicial overreach.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Overreach

Not sure that it’s an overreach. Apple isn’t being told to create a backdoor (no matter what the narrative is that is being pushed), they are being told to issue a specific update for this phone which basically removes a couple of things that blocks the door. By doing so the government will still have to use a brute force hack to try to access the phone.

It’s like the court ordering you to dismantle a bookshelf in front of a locked door. They aren’t telling you to unlock the door, just the remove the restrictions that make it so police cannot access the door.

Don’t fall for the funky narratives that are out there. Trying to pin every police action to a massive conspiracy theory is, well, Alex Jones level silly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Overreach

Dear waste of air!

I work in technology and I also develop code.


This is not a narrative fuck up, fuck around or fuck about. It is just a fact! This is not just over reach, it is tyranny! And no you fucktard, this is no where near like a court ordering someone to dismantle a bookshelf in front of a locked door.

If Apple did their fucking job right in the first place they should not even have the ability to easily crack their own encryption. If they are able to develop a version of iOS capable of it, then their encryption was a house of fucking cards to begin with! Any decent quality encryption for a mobile device should have an IC which is a set only encryption key that performs a MITM decipher of data being extracted from a data source paired with a valid software key. This would prevent the key from ever being discovered without some damn fancy methods of lifting it from the IC itself. At best… the Apple fucks should only be able to provide 1/2 of the key, but never all of it.

There are tons of open source encryption systems out there where you can access the source code… why don’t you go an hack the fucker yourself? It is like dismantling a bookshelf after all…

You are a fucking moron! And apparently so is Apple for fucking weak ass encryption in the first place!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Overreach

I don’t know why you’re ranting about the key. They’re not even trying to get the encryption key. They’re trying to get the passcode.

The passcode can’t be some 128 character sequence. That would cause users to defeat the security themselves – they’d write the thing down because they wouldn’t be able to memorize it, and they’d avoid locking the phone to avoid all that typing. It has to be something the user can reasonably memorize and type, and since that easily memorized sequence must be able to unlock the phone, it can be attacked.

I suppose they should allow more digits and just let the user decide where the tradeoff between security and convenience is, rather than relying on the software to only allow 10 attempts.

Anon says:

Re: Re: Re: Overreach

As the commentator said on Don Lemon’s CN show tonight – the state of NY alone has 150 iPhones in evidence just waiting to be decrypted – and this case will give them a precedent. Of course it’s the thin edge of the wedge. If it can be done for one, it can be done for anyone.

And we haven’t seen any actual proof that there is real evidence on there – just wild speculation, “they might have used this for…”

The world has to understand, if we can decrypt terrorists’ iPhones (technically, a couple going postal, not a terrorist attack) then the same technology will allow us to see Jennifer Lawrence nude. I’m sure nobody wants that… 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

i think the fbi should call...

Samsung. There’s a chance the “terrorists” (I use quotes because I think they were just fecal imbibing duckhead butthats with an axe to grind and not affiliated with actual terrorists, since they had no political agenda that we’ve been shown (yes i SFW’d that for you)) had a smart tv with a voice command feature.

Anonymous Coward says:

Thank you for keeping me from wasting the time to click on the link. Like you, I would not have removed the adblocker over an article. The few minutes reading that article will not replace the time having to be spent fixing malvertising when ever it rares it’s ugly head. Since the advertising industry refuses to clean up it’s act, all ads are suspect and I am not willing to take the chance.

Personanongrata says:

FBI Precedent is to Abuse the Law Early and Often

No, The FBI Does Not ‘Need’ The Info On Farook’s iPhone; This Is Entirely About The Precedent

To better understand how the FBI and J. Edgar Comey would exploit this new precedent a person only need examine FBI abuses of National Security Letters under the USA PATRIOT Act.

The paragraph below was excerpted from EFF:

Peekaboo, I See You: Government Authority Intended for Terrorism is Used for Other Purposes

October 26, 2014 | By Mark Jaycox

Second, the uses: Out of the 3,970 total requests from October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010, 3,034 were for narcotics cases and only 37 for terrorism cases (about .9%). Since then, the numbers get worse. The 2011 report reveals a total of 6,775 requests. 5,093 were used for drugs, while only 31 (or .5%) were used for terrorism cases. The 2012 report follows a similar pattern: Only .6%, or 58 requests, dealt with terrorism cases. The 2013 report confirms the incredibly low numbers. Out of 11,129 reports only 51, or .5%, of requests were used for terrorism. The majority of requests were overwhelmingly for narcotics cases, which tapped out at 9,401 requests.

Anonymous Coward says:

Other things the FBI needs.

And, since much of the planning for this attack must have happened between Farook and Malik in their home, the FBI is never going to know what they said to each other as they sat around the kitchen table, or on the sofa, or in bed.

Which is why the FBI also *needs* video cameras in everyone’s home.

Rekrul says:

Honestly, the only reason that the FBI wants to force Apple to create the special operating system for this particular phone is the precedent that it can go to court and force a company to build special hacking tools to remove security features from customers. That’s a big deal. The information on the phone is almost certainly not a big deal at all.

My friend would say that the FBI absolutely should be able to force companies to build special hacking tools to get into encrypted devices. After all, it’s their job to keep us safe and that takes precedence over everything else…

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