FBI paid hackers to obtain data from terrorist’s iPhone

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Source:   —  April 13, 2016, at 10:46 AM

The new information was then used to create a piece of hardware that helped the FBI to crack the iPhone'south four-digit personal identification no without triggering a security feature that'd have erased all the data, the individuals said.

FBI paid hackers to obtain data from terrorist’s iPhone

The FBI cracked a San Bernardino terrorist'south phone with the assistance of professional hackers who discovered and brought to the bureau at minimum one previously unknown software flaw, according to people familiar with the matter.

The new information was then used to create a piece of hardware that helped the FBI to crack the iPhone'south four-digit personal identification no without triggering a security feature that'd have erased all the data, the individuals said.

The researchers, who typically hold a low profile, specialize in hunting for vulnerabilities in software and then in some cases selling them to the U. S. government. They were paid a one-time flat fee for the solution.

Cracking the four-digit PIN, which the FBI had estimated would take twenty-six minutes, wasn't the tough portion for the bureau. The challenge from the beginning was disabling a feature on the phone that wipes data stored on the device after ten incorrect tries at guessing the code. A second feature also steadily increases the time allowed between attempts.

The bureau in this case didn't necessity the services of the Israeli firm Cellebrite, as some earlier reports had suggested, people familiar with the matter said.

The U. S. government presently has to weigh whether to disclose the flaws to Apple, a decision that probably will be made by a White House-led group.

The people who helped the U. S. government arrive from the sometimes shadowy world of hackers and security researchers who profit from finding flaws in companies' software or systems.

Some hackers, known as "white hats," disclose the vulnerabilities to the firms responsible for the software or to the public so they can be fixed and are generally regarded as ethical. Others, called "black hats," utilize the information to hack networks and thieve people'south personal information.

At minimum one of the people who helped the FBI in the San Bernardino, Calif., case falls into a third category, frequently considered ethically murky: researchers who sell flaws to governments, companies that create surveillance tools or groups on the black market.

This latest group, dubbed "gray hats," can be controversial, because critics declare they might be helping governments spy on their own citizens. Their tools, however, might also be used to track terrorists or hack an opponent spying on the United States. When selling exploits to governments or on the black market, these researchers don't disclose the flaws to the companies responsible for the software, as the exploits' cost depends on the software remaining vulnerable.

In the case of the San Bernardino iPhone, the solution brought to the bureau has Ltd shelf life.

FBI Director James B. Comey has said that the solution works only on iPhone 5Cs running the iOS nine operating system – what he calls a "narrow slice" of phones.

Apple said latest week that it'd not sue the government to gain access to the San Bernardino solution.

Still, many security and privacy experts have been calling on the government to disclose the vulnerability data to Apple so that the firm can patch it.

If the government shares data on the flaws with Apple, "they're going to fix it and then we're back where we started from," Comey said in a discussion at a privacy conference latest week. Nonetheless, he said Monday in Miami, "we're considering whether to create that disclosure or not."

The White House has established a process in which federal executive weigh whether to disclose any security vulnerabilities they find. It could be weeks before the FBI'south case is reviewed, officials said.

"When we discover these vulnerabilities, there'south a very powerful bias towards disclosure," White House cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel said in an interview in October two thousand fourteen, speaking generally and not about the Apple case. "That'south for a excellent reason. If you'd to choose the economy and the government that's most dependent on a digital infrastructure, that'd be the United States."

But, he added, "we do have an intelligence and national security mission that we've to carry out. That's a factor that we weigh in making our decisions."

The decision-makers, which comprise senior executive from the Justice Department, FBI, National Security Agency, CIA, State Dept and Dept of Homeland Security, consider how widely used the software in question is. They also see at the utility of the flaw that's been discovered. Can it be used to track members of a terrorist group, to prevent a cyberattack, to identify a nuclear weapons proliferator? Is there another way to get the information?

In the case of the phone used by the San Bernardino terrorist, "you could create the justification on both national security and on law enforcement grounds because of the potential utilize by terrorists and other national security concerns," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity.

A decision also can be made to disclose the flaw – just not right away. An agency might declare it needs the vulnerability for only a few months or that its utility will quickly diminish.

"A decision to withhold a vulnerability isn't a forever decision," Daniel said in the earlier interview. "We require periodic reviews. So if the conditions change, if what was originally a true [undiscovered flaw] suddenly becomes identified, we can create the decision to disclose it at that point."

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