Did the FBI Unleash a Hacker Army on Apple?

March 29, 2016

In the end, the FBI didn’t need Apple’s help to extract information from a dead terrorist’s iPhone. Hackers, the FBI says, did the government’s work for it.

On Monday, the Justice Department asked a judge in California to put aside a search warrant compelling Apple to assist law enforcement in obtaining information from the phone used by dead San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. The reason: Apple’s help was no longer required.

That’s because tech companies and researchers around the world beat a path to the bureau’s door. Let us find a way into that phone that Apple won’t help you crack, they said.

You won’t find that version of events spelled out quite so bluntly in any court documents. But it’s essentially what FBI Director James Comey told reporters last week in Washington.

“The attention that’s been drawn to this issue, by the litigation and by the controversy that’s surrounded it, has stimulated a marketplace of creative people all around the world to try and come up with ideas,” Comey said. “Lots of folks have come to us with potential ideas.”

And why wouldn’t they? One of the world’s most influential technology companies had squared off against the world’s most powerful law enforcement agency. Whether those creative minds were drawn by money, the potential for future business—in the United States or abroad—or just the sheer challenge, they apparently came calling.

One idea finally worked. Over the weekend of March 19, an outside party—all officials will say is that it’s not a U.S. government agency—demonstrated a technique for getting information from Farook’s phone without permanently destroying it. And over the Easter weekend, the FBI put it to work and investigators were finally able to go through the phone’s contents.

The FBI has said practically nothing about the “tool” that helped the FBI get inside the phone, as a U.S. law enforcement official called it in a hastily arranged press conference on Monday evening. Nor would the official say whether investigators might use it again on the dozen or so other iPhones the FBI is reportedly trying to gain access to, or whether the bureau would share the tool with local law enforcement agencies, who are believed to have hundreds of phones just waiting to be cracked.

“I think the best answer I can give you is it’s premature to say anything about our ability to access other phones,” said the official, who discussed the case with reporters on condition of anonymity and said almost nothing about where the FBI will go from here.

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