Nothing is something

By Robert Hackett
April 23, 2016
April 23, 2016

The latest—and last?—development in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s San Bernardino probe reminds me of a trick my astronomy professor pulled during my freshman year of college.

Standing at the head of the lecture hall, the professor asked some version of the question: What existed before the Big Bang? Everyone had to buzz in with an answer. (A) Space, (B) Time, (C) Nothing, or (D) Humans have no language to describe what may have existed before the Big Bang. The answer, to me, seemed obvious at the time: (D).

Correct—the professor confirmed the choice. At least one gentleman in the class disagreed, however. He refused to accept this as the answer. He had selected (C), and he argued his case aloud. Nothing existed before the Big Bang! That’s the whole point, duh.

The professor’s rejoinder may as well have been a koan. Even nothing is something, he said. Whatever existed pre-Big Bang eludes us.

This reasoning did not satisfy the student. No, the pupil responded. Nothing is nothing. It is the absence of something. That’s the definition. You are wrong.

I never quite understood this student’s reaction—until now perhaps, in the context of the Apple versus FBI iPhone cracking case.

Soon after breaking into the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, the Feds said they had found nothing of value—no substantial leads—stored on the device. An unnamed source intimated that investigators had found no links between the male shooter, Syed Farook, and overseas terrorists. They had discovered no communications between him and terror cells during an unaccounted for 18 minutes after the massacre. In essence, they learned nothing new. Nada. Zilch. Zero.

To anyone with knowledge of the case, the absence of clues on that iPhone 5c should come as no surprise. The phone was a neglected work phone, not a personal phone, used by the terrorist. (Farook had taken pains to destroy his personal devices; this handset he tossed aside.) Plus, the agency already had access to the handset’s call metadata through phone records.

And yet now law enforcement sources told CNN that the FBI indeed found valuable information on the iPhone. What of value did investigators discover? We may never know the specifics; however the report did say something telling.

“The phone didn’t contain evidence of contacts with other ISIS supporters or the use of encrypted communications during the period the FBI was concerned about,” CNN reported, citing unnamed sources. “The FBI views that information as valuable to the probe, possibilities it couldn’t discount without getting into the phone.”

I suspect that the FBI did find nothing of interest. Now I know deep down, philosophically, that nothing is something. But given how close the government came to compromising the integrity of U.S. citizens’ digital privacy with its request for access to users’ encrypted data, I must say I feel awfully like the indignant student in this case.

Robert Hackett

@rhhackett

robert.hackett@fortune.com

Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett here. You may reach me via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber, PGP encrypted email, Wickr, Signal, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.


THREATS

Brooklyn iPhone case ends. The U.S. Justice Department dropped its case involving unlocking an iPhone in a New York drug case on Friday night. Unlike the San Bernardino case, this one did not require a hack. An individual—the suspect Jun Feng, sources have said—came forward with the passcode. (Fortune, Wall Street Journal)

Apple to China: “Hands off.” Apple confirmed at a congressional hearing that the Chinese government had requested access to its iPhone source code. Access to the code would presumably help hackers and spies find chinks in the company’s iOS armor, which would be useful for those trying to obtain user data from Apple devices. “We refused,” said Bruce Sewell, the company’s general counsel. (Fortune)

BlackBerry to tech firms: “Comply.” Jon Chen, CEO of BlackBerry, penned a blog post on Monday saying that tech companies should comply with reasonable requests from law enforcement for access to protected data.“We are indeed in a dark place when companies put their reputations above the greater good,” he wrote. (Fortune)

Viber app gets encryption makeover. Following WhatsApp’s lead, the text and voice chat app has decided to roll out end-to-end encryption for its 250 million monthly active users. Questions remain about the strength of the cryptography employed, as details about the code have not been made public. (Fortune)

Score one for the surveillance state. A judge ruled that the FBI may continue accessing data collected by the NSA (specifically, its PRISM program) for criminal investigations. A federal prosecutor had challenged the agency’s power on the grounds that it broke fourth amendment privacy protections. The opinion, delivered in November, became public in a newly released document. (Fortune)

Check Point forecast falls short. On an earnings call for the Israeli cybersecurity firm this week, CEO Gil Shwed disappointed investors by projecting second quarter earnings that dipped below analyst expectations. His estimate—$1.02-$1.09 earnings per share—was lower than analysts’ forecast of $1.09 per share. (Fortune)

Before you uninstall QuickTime… A word of caution from Adobe. The software-maker said that some of its Creative Cloud video applications require Apple’s deprecated media player. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security advised Windows PC users to uninstall QuickTime after a cybersecurity firm found two critical vulnerabilities in its code. (FortuneFortune)

By the way, investing in cybersecurity ain’t such a bad idea.

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ACCESS GRANTED

Fortune’s Robert Hackett (yours truly) describes the dilemma that the victims of last year’s Ashley Madison data breach face.

Last year, hackers tore into Ashley Madison, a website for people seeking extramarital affairs, and dumped personal information about its users online.

Dozens of the site’s 32 million members filed suit and are pooling their litigation into a proposed class action against Avid Life Media, Ashley Madison’s parent company. A district court judge in Missouri, where the case is set be heard, has ordered the plaintiffs to submit a consolidated complaint by June 3, Ars Technica reported, citing a court document.

People interested in participating in the suit are facing a hangup, however. In order to be a plaintiff, they must reveal their identities and, therefore, their involvement in a network that catered to people looking to cheat on their spouses. Read the rest on Fortune.com.



ONE MORE THING

Credit bureaus were the NSA of the 19th century. In assessing the credit-worthiness of businessmen through unprecedented surveillance, these bureaus drew associations with “espionage” and “spying” in popular accounts. Credit agencies have arguably been usurped by government agencies in the extent of their operational secrecy and intelligence collection. (Atlantic)

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