The FBI's $1 million distraction

Psst! The only meaningful data from the Apple/FBI battle is on the phone
Written by John Fontana, Contributor

So what!

The FBI paid $1 million to break into the iPhone of a suspected terrorist. Was FBI chief James Comey using this information to erect a smoke screen Thursday in London at the expense of revealing the smoking gun?

Here's the smoke, and the million-dollar question: What was on the phone? That information will validate Comey's other statement Thursday, which was that the $1 million "was worth it."

Was it?

Whether the FBI found anything or not on Syed Farook's work iPhone can have significant impact on the now-contentious encryption debate, which has crossed over into lunacy with the Burr-Feinstein bill.

Was Comey's statement a diversion to get chins wagging about a seven-figure price tag to break into a phone? If it was, a quick look today at Twitter's trending topic "San Bernardino iPhone" reveals a painfully long list of lemmings repeating the $1 million message.

For context, the FBI's 2016 annual budget is $8.48 billion (note: phone hacking is not a line item).

The battle between the FBI and Apple - and now involving all sorts of legislative suggestions - has focused attention on data encryption, privacy and security. But we have just about all the questions we can swallow. What do you say we get an answer or two to wash them all down. Comey had a chance to do just that, but he chose not to.

I'm sure there are many national security reasons for his silence.

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.

Nothing's been officially classified, but it's a good bet right now that eventuality becomes a future trending topic. I'm thinking Hellman's prediction is likely to be prophetic.

We keep hearing about more and more incidents where governments and others can't keep their hands off personal data. Just today, my ZDNet colleague Charlie Osborne, reported that privacy advocate Privacy International released a cache of previously confidential documents which show just how deep-rooted and ingrained surveillance and spying in the United Kingdom has become over the past 15 years.

Peeking under everyone's covers, with a professed goal of finding bad guys, now seems to be the norm rather than the exception. Will we eventually live in a world where we are born suspects waiting to be proven innocent? Will we ever learn the truth on what this surveillance yields and if the effort was "worth it."

We should know what was on the San Bernardino iPhone, and answer the $1 million question on our own. Given what we've learned about the FBI, NSA, GCHQ and others during the past years, we're likely to get more smoke screens at the expense of smoking guns.

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