FBI won't share its iPhone hack with Apple because it's unfamiliar with the code

The FBI claims it doesn't actually know how its iPhone-hacking tool works, so it can't share the method with Apple.

The FBI claims that being forced to share its iPhone-hacking tool with Apple wouldn’t be worth it–because the government agency doesn’t actually know how it works.

This week, the FBI will notify the White House that it doesn’t actually know the underlying code that facilitated hacking into the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters. Because of this, the FBI claims that it doesn’t make sense to launch an internal government investigation to decide whether to share the information with Apple.

According to director James Comey, the FBI paid at least $1 million to an undisclosed third-party for this secret hacking tool after Apple refused to undermine the security of its own product and put customers at risk. Even though the FBI acquired the tool, federal agents are unfamiliar with how it actually works so they can’t report it to the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, the government system that would determine whether there are any security weaknesses that should be reported to Apple.

While the FBI’s million-dollar hacking tool could remain a secret, Apple told The Wall Street Journal that whatever iPhone vulnerability the tool exploited will have a “short shelf life.” Apple has vowed to continue improving the security of its products and to patch any vulnerabilities.

Why this matters: Even though the specific FBI-Apple court fight that sparked this debate has been diffused, a broader back-and-forth between the government and tech companies continues. Now, it’s the government’s Vulnerabilities Equities Process that’s being put into question. This process involves intelligence agencies deciding whether a specific software vulnerability needs to be disclosed to its manufacturer or the public. This decision is reached by weighing the risk of the vulnerability being exploited with the value to national security in keeping the vulnerability a secret.

The White House has said that the Vulnerabilities Equities Process is designed to help software makers patch weaknesses, but some privacy advocates argue that the process actually favors national security.

“If the government can circumvent the process merely by buying vulnerabilities, then the process becomes a farce,” Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the WSJ. “The FBI is not interested in cybersecurity.”

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