Analysis In a marathon session that would have tested the patience of even the biggest Apple fanbois, the House Judicial Committee spent the entirety of Tuesday afternoon discussing the conflict between the FBI and Apple over access to an iPhone.
Unfortunately, despite nearly five hours of testimony from FBI director James Comey, Apple general counsel Bruce Sewell, encryption expert Susan Landau and New York district attorney Cyrus Vance, we learned little or nothing that has not been played out repeatedly in the media over the past week.
Sadly, the decision to place Comey on one panel all by himself and Sewell with the other two expert witnesses in a subsequent and separate panel meant that we got to hear all over again the completely opposing views of the same points without any effort to resolve their differences.
So, Comey told us the FBI case was about a single case (the San Bernardino shooting) and a single phone (an iPhone 5C running iOS 9). Apple's Sewell then said three hours later: "This is not about the San Bernardino case." And that the FBI's request would work with any iPhone.
These are two diametrically opposite views, and the US Congress had an opportunity to force some truth into the equation. It failed to do so.
Comey and Vance backtracked from their claims that the case did not represent a legal precedent because quite obviously it does. But they did so begrudgingly, which is ludicrous seeing as both of them are lawyers. Congress had an opportunity to force them to be straight about the situation. Some representatives, to their credit, did try, but the results were disappointing.
Comey claimed not to have read Monday's decision from a New York judge about another iPhone-opening case, but he immediately had to hand a legal explanation for why it was different from the San Bernardino case (it's a matter of where the data is "at rest" or not, ie, stored on a phone or in active use).
Comey said repeatedly his goal was to open a debate on the issue; Sewell said the FBI's actions were being used "as a way to cut off the debate."
One area where they did both agree was in pretending that they wanted others to decide the issue for them. Comey repeatedly told the congressmen and women that he needed congress and the "American people" to decide what best to do in this brave new world where the Feds can't access every shred of information about you. But when pushed, he said that congress should not be in charge of deciding.
Likewise Sewell, who said congress needed to decide the way forward but was skewered by one congressman who kept asking him what he proposed and was met with repeated vague answers about having "been clear where we stand."
And then there were the analogies: the iPhone was a locked drawer. No, a bullet-riddled body. No, a vicious guard dog.
For the 8,000 people following the live stream of the session, it was a reminder that congress continues to include some brilliant people, some not-so-brilliant people, quite a lot of grandstanders, and a universal love of hearing themselves talk.
Here then were the content-free highlights of the five-hour session:
Trey Gowdy remains an angry idiot
If you've never had the pleasure of listening to Trey Gowdy, you should get some sedatives, a bottle of vodka and dive in. If South Carolina decided to run a reality TV show competition with the winner taking its 4th congressional district seat, you would probably get a sharper representative.
Today, Gowdy focused in – repeatedly – on a question that has occurred to precisely no one over this whole Apple-FBI debate: what is the connection between the human body and a mobile phone? As he got louder and angrier at what we can only assume was his own idiocy, he summed up his contribution with an explosive mind-fart just as his time ran out:
You can go into people's bodies and remove bullets but you can't go into a dead person's iPhone and remove the data? I'm just amazed by that.
You're not the only person who was amazed, Trey.
Darrell Issa gets embarrassing
We're typically fans of Darrell Issa at The Reg because he's one of the very few people in congress who have any technical understanding at all.
But you know that uncle you have that used to be good at something but becomes increasingly embarrassing, as his knowledge grows out of date? The guy who takes a screwdriver to your iPhone, or gets out his ratchet to fix your car engine and then stands there emitting a stream of technical words that presumably had meaning in 1979? Yep, that's the way Mr Issa is going.
Mr Issa must have read a post on a technical blog somewhere because he became convinced he had the answer to the FBI's woes: "You can remove all the non-volatile memory from an iPhone 5C," he told Comey after mocking him for not having thought of it first. "If you can then make 10,000 copies of it then you can perform as many attacks as you want on it. You can try all 10,000 combinations in a matter of hours."
Comey had no idea what he was talking about. And for good reason: Mr Issa's solution won't work. Comey did note, however, that in the many conversations the FBI had had with Apple, they had never suggested copying the non-volatile memory. "I'm hoping my folks are watching this. And if you've said something useful, I hope they will jump on it," he gently soothed Darrell.
Here's our firm prediction: no jumping at FBI headquarters.