FBI Quest To Unlock iPhone Sets Off Race Among Technology Firms


Ever since a judge ordered Apple to assist the FBI in unlocking an iPhone used by a terrorist the San Bernardino terror attack, scores of technology firms have been trying to beat the FBI to the punch, according to The Wall Street Journal. The prize for such an accomplishment would be a marketing bonanza and lucrative government contracts.

One company, Cellebrite Mobile Synchronization Ltd., based in Israel, a unit of Japan’s Sun Corp., demonstrates the possibility of gaining government work. The company is already working with the FBI on the San Bernardino iPhone. Cellebrite says on its website it can fetch data from an iPhone running iOS 8, which is an older version of the operating system which does not have the encryption protections of the iOS9 that the San Bernardino terrorist’s phone has. Cellebrite has signed at least three agreements with the FBI that explain unlocking an iPad or iPhone, according to federal procurement records.

One of the Cellebrite contracts, dated five days after the terrorist attack, is for $4,500. Cellebrite has manufacturing operations in Israel and has marketing units in Brazil, Germany, Singapore and the U.S.

A Marketing Bonanza At Stake

Dan Guido, chief executive of Trail of Bits in New York City, said the marketing rewards from unlocking the iPhone would be outstanding. He said when someone describes a challenge as being impossible, you are motivated to prove them wrong. He said his company will be able to gain access to the iPhone data in one to three months.

Where Cellebrite is a big player in digital forensics, Trail of Bits specializes in research and development.

Alex Kreilein, marketing manager and chief technology officer at SecureSet LLC, said there are 100 to 150 firms capable of unlocking the iPhone.

Apple Pushes The Security Bar

Apple in recent years has pushed forensics and data recovery firms to improve their ability to retrieve data. When Apple introduced iOS 8 in 2014, the company said it would not have the ability to decrypt data stored on the phone. The iOS9, as well as the iPhone hardware upgrades, make the company’s devices even more secure.

DriveSavers Inc. is also trying to unlock the iPhone, according to Mike Cobb, the company’s director of engineering. Like Trail of Bits, DriveSavers’ efforts are independent of the FBI. Both firms say if they succeed they will pursue government contracts.

The U.S. Justice Department on Monday said the technique it was using to unlock the iPhone might not work.

A department spokesperson said a lot of people have reached out to the agency with proposed methods, but all have failed.

Featured image from Pexels.

Lester Coleman is a veteran business journalist based in the United States. He has covered the payments industry for several years and is available for writing assignments.