FBI Paid Gray Hat Hackers to Crack iPhone

The long-running encryption debate and stand-off between Apple and the FBI finally saw the law enforcement agency figure out its own way to crack the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone.

Contrary the earlier assumption that an Israeli security company unlocked the iPhone for the FBI, a new report claims that the agency simply paid grey hat hackers to crack the iPhone.

Sources close to the Washington Post revealed that the FBI cracked the device with the help of grey hats. Typically, grey hat hackers find vulnerabilities to exploit in programs, software and devices and sell their knowledge for personal profit. In this case, sources familiar with FBI’s means to cracking the iPhone revealed that professional hackers discovered the vulnerability and brought it to the bureau.

The new information specifically helped law enforcement to devise a new piece of hardware that directly helped crack the iPhone’s four-digit PIN. The above was accomplished without triggering the auto-erase security feature bundled in with the iPhone.

The report read:

The researchers, who typically keep 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.

The FBI’s biggest challenge was to ensure that the wiping feature enabled on iPhones is disabled, before proceeding to cracking the PIN. The auto-wipe feature is triggered after 10 incorrect attempts at guessing the code.

Once disabled, the FBI was then free to brute-force its way into cracking the four-digit PIN, a feat which the FBI estimated would not exceed 26 minutes altogether.

This solution brought by the grey hats has a limited shelf life, according to the FBI. Bureau director James B. Comey stated that the solution only works on the iOS 9 mobile operating system that is installed on iPhone 5Cs, specifically.

In a twist of irony, the U.S. government will now decide if it is to disclose the flaws exploited by the agency to Apple. The software giant has previously stated that it would not sue the government for breaching the security of the iPhone. Meanwhile, security and privacy experts and advocates are calling on the government to disclose the vulnerability to Apple to ensure that such holes are patched.

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