FBI's strategy in Apple case caught in distortion field

FBI doing little to build trust as it pushes iPhone matter, encryption debate deeper into shadows

Was it worth all the trouble for the FBI to break into the iPhone left behind by terrorist Syed Farook?

Was the information gathered an avenue to stop future terrorists attacks? Or was it just a phone with work contacts or a benign number for a good local plumber?

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A month ago, cryptography pioneer Martin Hellman predicted this tangled situation when he spoke at the annual RSA Conference in San Francisco.

"It wouldn't be so bad if once they [FBI] get into the phone they tell us what was on it, which I suspect will be useless, then we can say it wasn't worth it, but I suspect they will classify it and prevent that from happening," Hellman said.

He is right, knowing the contents of the phone makes the break-in decision simple to critique, and the collected information would sway public opinion either toward digital privacy or national security that includes government access to a "suspects" phone.

This linchpin likely means it's doubtful the FBI will supply reliable information, although nothing associated with the phone's content has yet to be classified.

The FBI deftly cut Apple out of the equation when it announced the phone had been cracked and ended the court case with the iPhone maker. The move shielded the FBI from legally having to share with Apple details of how it broke into Farook's phone, it sent the exposed data into FBI limbo, and left every iPhone user wondering if their device is vulnerable.

The FBI is now reviewing the information on the iPhone, the Justice Department said last week. Will the FBI uncover any relevant data? We may never really know or believe what they say.

This case has again exposed a waffling and suspect FBI, which first said it could only break into the phone with Apple's help only to ultimately disprove its own argument.

If you believe Edward Snowden, the FBI has an ongoing accuracy problem, which seems to be permeating this case. Snowden said via a video link from Moscow in early March at Common Cause's Blueprint for Democracy conference, "The FBI says Apple has the 'exclusive technical means'" to unlock the phone. "Respectfully, that's bullshit."

According to an article last year by The Intercept, the NSA and CIA have worked for almost 10 years to develop ways to hack into Apple devices.

Ultimately, the FBI reportedly entered into a $15,000 contract with Israeli mobile software developer Cellebrite to break into the phone. The solution already has state and local governments lining up for a shot at using the FBI's iPhone hacking secret.

And therein lies another twist in this saga. There are questions whether the FBI has the right to share the secret hack or if it belongs to the company that created it. This development could stall or hide from public (and Apple) scrutiny the method used to hack the iPhone.

This high-profile terrorist case, it turns out, is just more of the same for the FBI.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote on its blog that it uncovered 63 confirmed cases and 13 additional cases "in which the government applied for an order under the All Writs Act to compel Apple or Google to provide assistance in accessing data stored on a mobile device." The All Writs Act is the same legal maneuver used in the Farook case.

"The FBI wants you to think that it will use the All Writs Act only in extraordinary cases to force tech companies to assist in the unlocking of phones. Turns out, these kinds of orders have actually become quite ordinary," the ACLU said in the blog.

And now other voices are joining the fray.

On Tuesday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), a noted privacy and encryption advocate, told The Hill website, "There are real questions about whether [the FBI] has been straight with the public on [the Apple case]." Wyden said there is a "truthfulness question" concerning the FBI. He declared the Apple episode far from over and concluded the real argument in the case is a choice between more security or less security.

Insight into the contents of Farook's phone could dramatically tilt that argument one way or the other.