So Much for Farook’s Phone

Shortly after the attack in San Bernardino the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) tried to exploit the tragedy in order to force Apple to assist it in unlocking Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone. According to the FBI Farook’s phone likely contained information that would allow them to find his accomplices, motives, and basically solve the case. Apple refused to give the FBI the power to unlock any iPhone 5C willy nilly but the agency eventually found a third party that had an exploit that would allow the built-in security to be bypassed.

One year later the FBI hasn’t solved the case even with access to Farook’s iPhone:

They launched an unprecedented legal battle with Apple in an effort to unlock Farook’s iPhone and deployed divers to scour a nearby lake in search of electronic equipment the couple might have dumped there.

But despite piecing together a detailed picture of the couple’s actions up to and including the massacre, federal officials acknowledge they still don’t have answers to some of the critical questions posed in the days after the Dec. 2, 2015, attack at the Inland Regional Center.

Most important, the FBI said it is still trying to determine whether anyone was aware of the couple’s plot or helped them in any way. From the beginning, agents have tried to figure out whether others might have known something about Farook and Malik’s plans, since the couple spent months gathering an arsenal of weapons and building bombs in the garage of their Redlands home.

Officials said they don’t have enough evidence to charge anyone with a crime but stressed the investigation is still open.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anybody. Anybody who had the ability to plan out an attack like the one in San Bernardino without being discovered probably had enough operational security to not use an easily surveilled device such as a cellular phone for the planning. Too many people, including those who should know better, assume only technological wizards have the knowhow to plan things without using commonly surveilled communication methods. But that’s not the case. People who are committed to pulling off a planned attack that includes coordination with third parties are usually smart enough to do their research and utilize communication methods that are unlikely to be accessible to prying eyes. It’s not wizardry, it’s a trick as old as human conflict itself.

Humans are both unpredictable and adaptable, which is what makes mass surveillance useless. When an agency such as the National Security Agency (NSA) performs mass surveillance they get an exponentially greater amount of noise than signal. We’re not even talking about a 100:1 ratio. It would probably be closer to 1,000,000,000,000:1. Furthermore, people with enough intelligence to pull off coordinated attacks are usually paranoid enough to assume the most commonly available communication mechanisms are being surveilled so they adapt. Mass surveillance works well if you want a lot of grandmothers’ recipes, Internet memes, and insults about mothers made by teenagers. But mass surveillance is useless if you’re trying to identify individuals who are a significant threat. Sure, the NSA may get lucky once in a while and catch somebody but that’s by far the exception, not the rule. The rule, when it comes to identifying and thwarting significant threats, is that old fashioned investigative techniques must be employed.