FBI Plans to Keep iPhone Hacking Method Secret [Update: Confirmed]
The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation will keep the method that it used to hack into the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook a secret, reports The Wall Street Journal. Citing sources with knowledge of the FBI's plans, the report suggests the FBI will tell the White House that an internal government review does not make sense because it "knows so little" about the hacking tool that was employed.
A government review under the U.S. Vulnerabilities Equities Process, which allows federal agencies to determine whether or not critical security flaws should be shared with companies, would potentially lead to an order to disclose the security vulnerability to Apple. Without a review, Apple may not find out how the iPhone was breached.
The decision, and the technical and bureaucratic justification behind it, would likely keep Apple in the dark about whatever security gap exists on certain models of the company's phones, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The Wall Street Journal's report comes following a statement made by FBI Director James Comey at a cybersecurity event in Washington D.C., which was shared by Reuters. According to Comey, the FBI is still in the process of determining whether or not a government review should move forward.
"We are in the midst of trying to sort that out," Comey said. "The threshold (for disclosure) is, are we aware of the vulnerability, or did we just buy a tool and don't have sufficient knowledge of the vulnerability to implicate the process?"
"We are close to a resolution," he added at a cybersecurity event at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Sources that spoke to Reuters say the Vulnerabilities Equities Process is not set up to handle flaws that are discovered and owned by private companies, with Comey's statement suggesting the FBI does not own the method used to hack the iPhone.
To break into Farook's iPhone 5c, the FBI employed the help of "professional hackers," paying upwards of $1.3 million for a tool exploiting a security vulnerability. While Apple would like details on the flaw so a fix can be implemented, the FBI can keep using the vulnerability so long as it remains unpatched.
The FBI has said the method used to break into the iPhone 5c does not work on the iPhone 5s and later, but it can be used to access iPhone 5c devices running iOS 9.
Update 4/27: In a statement shared by The New York Times, the FBI has confirmed that it will not give Apple details on the hacking method used to break into the iPhone.
"The F.B.I. purchased the method from an outside party so that we could unlock the San Bernardino device," Amy S. Hess, executive assistant director for science and technology, said in a statement.
"We did not, however, purchase the rights to technical details about how the method functions, or the nature and extent of any vulnerability upon which the method may rely in order to operate. As a result, currently we do not have enough technical information about any vulnerability that would permit any meaningful review" by the White House examiners, she said.
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