For the first time, the FBI has shed some light on the tool it purchased from a third party to hack into the iPhone involved in the high profile San Bernardino case.
After a speech at Kenyon University on April 6, FBI director James Comey revealed that the Justice Department has a “a tool that works on a narrow slice of phones” and not newer models from the iPhone 5s on.
The iPhone that the FBI originally wanted Apple to create a back door into the iPhone 5c that belonged to San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. The day before its court hearing with Apple, the FBI dropped the case and said it had been contacted by an outside party with a method of hacking that didn’t require Apple’s help.
“The FBI is very good at keeping secrets,” Comey told the crowd at the beginning of a lengthy Q&A at Kenyon on Wednesday. “The people we bought this from, I know a fair amount about them and I have a high degree of confidence that they are very good at protecting it and their motivations align with ours.”
Reports have said that the FBI is working with the Israeli mobile forensics firm Cellebrite, which has helped the Justice Department with similar requests in the past. Security experts have theorised that the method likely involves a technique called NAND
mirroring, a tedious process that involves disassembling the iPhone and replicating its chip repeatedly.
If the tool used by the FBI doesn’t work on newer iPhones after the 5s model, the reason likely has to do with the Touch ID fingerprint sensor and Secure Enclave processor Apple added in the 5s.
Comey said that the government is having internal discussions about if it should tell Apple about the workaround in its possession. “We tell Apple, they’re going to fix it, and we’re back where we started from,” he said. “As silly as that may sound, we may end up there. We just haven’t decided yet.”