Report: FBI hired professional hackers, not Cellebrite, to unlock San Bernardino iPhone

The FBI paid professional hackers a one-time fee to unlock a San Bernardino terrorist's iPhone rather than employing the Israeli firm Cellebrite, according to a Washington Post report.

The researchers discovered "at least one" previously unknown vulnerability in iOS and brought it to the attention of law enforcement authorities, the Post reported, citing unnamed "people familiar with the matter." The groups then developed a device that hacked into the phone's four-digit PIN without erasing the information by tripping a security feature.

The iPhone 5c belonged to one of the killers in December's mass shooting in California. It had been at the heart of a standoff between the U.S. Department of Justice and Apple, which had refused a court order to aid the FBI's investigation by helping authorities unlock it.

Previous reports had indicated the FBI had tapped Cellebrite to hack into the phone. The company boasts that it can obtain data from Apple phones running the latest version of iOS, and in 2013 it signed a sole-service contract with the FBI to provide data-extraction services.

According to the Post, the device and method used to unlock the San Bernardino phone "has unlimited shelf life," echoing FBI Director James B. Comey's claim that it works only on iPhone C models running iOS 9. That's a "narrow slice" of phones, according to Comey, that doesn't include newer models.

But while authorities appear to have resolved the San Bernardino case with the help of hackers, Apple is fighting similar efforts to compel the company to assist investigations in at least nine other cases across the country. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported two weeks ago that the FBI has begun to use its newfound iPhone-unlocking method to crack open other Apple handsets.

The FBI has reportedly told local law enforcement agencies that it could provide "technical assistance" in investigations involving locked iPhones, but the federal government hasn't said whether it will share information about its unlocking methods with Apple. Doing so would help Apple engineers address the flaw, of course, further heightening tensions between the two sides and potentially stymying future investigations.

For more information:
- read this Washington Post report

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