FBI Paid Hackers to Unlock San Bernardino iPhone

A new report has revealed that the FBI’s means to cracking the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone was by recruiting the help of professional hackers.

One of the biggest news stories of the year just became a tad more interesting. A new report from the Washington Post has revealed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) resorted to paying a group of hackers to crack the terrorist’s iPhone, a group of ethically and morally ambiguous hackers, that is.

According to the publication’s sources, the professional hackers or hacking outfit (details are scarce) discovered the flaw that would lead to unlocking the infamous iPhone 5C on their own, before reaching out to the authorities.

With the information, an entirely new piece of hardware was then devised by the FBI to help crack the four-digit PIN enabled in the iPhone. More importantly, the crack was achieved without triggering the auto-wipe security feature.

This auto-wipe feature was the hurdle that the FBI were wary about from the onset. One of the primary security protocols implemented by Apple on their mobile devices is enabling the feature which would wipe all data on the device after 10 incorrect attempts at guessing the code. The challenge facing the FBI was to disable that feature, before attempting to crack the iPhone.

Professional Hackers Called In

Calling the professional hackers as ‘researchers’ who typically look for zero-day exploits and other vulnerabilities, some of whom even sell knowledge of the vulnerabilities to governments and regimes, this collective of hackers was paid a one-time flat fee by the FBI.

The Washington Post also details different types of hackers, distinguishing them as “white hats” and “black hats”, the two most prominent groups of hackers.

White hats are hackers who look for flaws and vulnerabilities before reporting them to the developer, always in confidence before an embargo is lifted for a public reveal, only after the vulnerability is patched.

Black Hats are typically hackers who engage in cybercriminal activity, finding vulnerabilities and flaws and exploiting them for personal profit.

The “grey hats”, who count as the kind of hackers who reached out to the FBI here have a murkier agenda. After researching flaws and vulnerabilities –usually in widely used devices and popular software – the hackers sell the information, for profit, to governments and regimes, some of whom use the exploit to spy on its own citizens and other groups such as journalists.

The revelation that the FBI paid professional hackers to exploit the iPhone comes in the weeks after the Department of Defense recently introduced a bug bounty program encouraging hackers to hack the Pentagon.

Featured image from Shutterstock.

Samburaj is the contributing editor at Hacked and keeps tabs on science, technology and cyber security.