Apple versus the FBI: Apple probably won’t find out how the FBI hacked iPhone

Susie Ochs
15 April, 2016
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The strange tale of the San Bernardino iPhone seems like it’s almost over, although it touched off a national debate about encryption that’s just getting started. Apple probably won’t find out what method was used by the third-party firm that broke into the iPhone 5c used by shooter Syed Rizwan Farook, reports Reuters.

The US Government says that the unidentified international firm that did the hack has legal ownership of the method, so while the FBI got the data it wanted, it’s unable to disclose the method to Apple. There’s actually a system in place, known as the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, that’s designed to evaluate flaws discovered by the Government’s own agencies to determine if they should be disclosed to the technology companies that can patch them or if the vulnerabilities can remain secret to be used by the NSA, FBI or other agencies.

But in this case, the FBI says it doesn’t even know enough about the method to be able to submit it for evaluation. The firm that ‘owns’ the hack is free to keep it secret and sell it to anyone – government or criminal alike.

As recently as last week, FBI director James Comey made it sound like the bureau was still weighing its options about disclosing the flaw to Apple, not that it was technologically or legally prohibited from doing so. Speaking at Kenyon College on 6 April, Comey said, “If we tell Apple, they’re going to fix it and we’re back where we started. As silly as it may sound, we may end up there. We just haven’t decided yet.”

The other piece of bad news in this case: a source in law enforcement told CBS News that the San Bernardino iPhone hasn’t produced useful evidence so far, although they aren’t done analysing all the data. You may recall that the iPhone 5c in question was provided by Farook’s employer, San Bernardino County, and he also had a personal mobile phone that he destroyed prior to committing the crime. Farook and his wife and co-conspirator Tashfeen Malik were killed in a gunfight with law enforcement after murdering 14 people and seriously wounding 22.

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