FBI reportedly bought exploit from hackers to access San Bernardino iPhone

The agency is still working through questions about sharing the vulnerability with Apple

The FBI reportedly paid professional hackers a one-time fee for a previously unknown vulnerability that allowed the agency to unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter.

The exploit allowed the FBI to build a device capable of brute-forcing the iPhone's PIN without triggering a security measure that would have wiped all of its data, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing unnamed sources familiar with the matter.

The hackers who provided the exploit to the FBI find software vulnerabilities and sometimes sell them to the U.S. government, the newspaper reported.

Previous media reports suggested Israeli mobile forensics firm Cellebrite was the unnamed third party that helped the FBI unlock Farook's iPhone 5c. That was not the case, the Post's sources said.

In February, a judge ordered Apple to write special software that could help the FBI disable the iPhone's auto-erase protection. Apple challenged the order, but in late March the FBI dropped the case after successfully unlocking the iPhone using a technique acquired from an unnamed third-party.

Last week, speaking at Ohio’s Kenyon College, FBI director James Comey said the unlocking tool the agency used works only "on a narrow slice of iPhones," such as the 5c and older models.

That's probably because newer models store cryptographic material inside a secure hardware element called the secure enclave, first introduced in the iPhone 5s.

The FBI did not immediately respond to an inquiry seeking confirmation on whether the agency bought the iPhone 5c exploit from professional hackers.

However, the existence of a shadowy and largely unregulated market for exploits not reported to software vendors is no secret. There are hackers and security researchers who sell "zero-day" exploits to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, often through third-party brokers.

In November, a vulnerability acquisition firm called Zerodium paid US $1 million for a browser-based zero-day exploit that could fully compromise iOS 9 devices. The company shares the exploits it acquires with its customers, which include "government organizations in need of specific and tailored cybersecurity capabilities," according to the company's website.

The files leaked last year from surveillance software maker Hacking Team included a document with zero-day exploits offered for sale by an outfit called Vulnerabilities Brokerage International. Hacking Team sells its surveillance software to law enforcement agencies along with exploits that can be used to silently deploy the software on users' computers.

It's not clear if the FBI plans to eventually report the vulnerability to Apple. During the discussion at Kenyon College last week, Comey said the FBI is still working through that question and other policy issues related to the tool it obtained.

In April 2014, after reports of the National Security Agency stockpiling vulnerabilities, the White House outlined the government’s policy on sharing exploit information with vendors. There is "a disciplined, rigorous and high-level decision-making process for vulnerability disclosure" that weighs the pros and cons between disclosing a flaw and using it for intelligence gathering, Michael Daniel, special assistant to the president and cybersecurity coordinator, said in a blog post then.

Some software vendors have set up bug bounty programs and pay hackers for privately reporting vulnerabilities found in in their products. However, the rewards paid by vendors cannot compete with the amount of money that governments can and are willing to pay for the same flaws.

"I would rather vendors not try to compete in the bidding, but rather focus on eliminating the market entirely by creating secure products from the very beginning," said Jake Kouns, chief information security officer at vulnerability intelligence firm Risk Based Security, via email.

Software vendors should instead "invest significant money, energy, and time" into training developers on secure coding practices and reviewing code before releasing it, he added.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

More about AppleApple.FBINational Security Agency

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Lucian Constantin

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place