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Pro hackers the real source of FBI’s iPhone unlock, report claims

iPhone 5c in Blue

When the FBI confirmed it had gained access to an iPhone 5c used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, it looked like Israeli firm Cellebrite was the brains behind the operation. But according to a new report, pro hackers were the real source.

The Washington Post reports that professional hackers were the ones who discovered a previously unknown flaw in iOS and brought it to the FBI’s attention, according to “people familiar with the matter.” This flaw led to the unlock that was used on Farook’s iPhone.

“The new information was then used to create a piece of hardware that helped the FBI to crack the iPhone’s four-digit personal identification number without triggering a security feature that would have erased all the data,” explains the report.

The hackers specialize in uncovering vulnerabilities in software, and then making money from them. In some cases, they sell their information to the U.S. government, which allows access to devices like this one. It’s thought they were paid a one-time fee for this particular case.

It turns out the FBI may not have needed Cellebrite’s help after all, then. It’s thought the Israeli firm was behind the unlock after reports claiming the FBI had handed over $15,000 surfaced days after the unlock was confirmed. Cellebrite may have been involved in the process, though.

“In the case of the San Bernardino iPhone, the solution brought to the bureau has limited shelf life,” The Post adds. It is limited to use on an iPhone 5c running a certain version of Apple’s iOS software only, which, according to FBI director James Comey, is a “narrow slice” of phones.

The FBI was lucky this particular device fell into that category, then. As a result of the unlock, the FBI dropped its case against Apple, but we can be sure a similar one will surface again in the future when the bureau needs access to another iPhone it can’t crack.

Killian Bell

Killian Bell is a 20-something technology journalist based in a tiny town in England. He has an obsession with that little company in Cupertino...