A version of this post titled “Nothing is something” originally appeared in the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter.
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 (AAPL) versus FBI iPhone cracking case.
For more on Apple versus the FBI, watch:
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 have told CNN that the FBI found valuable information on the iPhone after all. What of value did investigators discover? We may never know the specifics; however the report did mention something telling.
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 onerous request for access to users’ encrypted data, I must say I feel awfully like the indignant student in this case.