The iPhone was unhackable. Until it wasn’t.
For the past few months, anyone following mobile tech news has seemingly had one theme repeated to us, that the iPhone was unhackable. Not just any iPhone, but an iPhone used by a terrorist in the San Bernardino attack. Seeking to gain entry to the iPhone, the FBI went to Apple for help. Apple turned over iCloud backup data, however the phone hadn’t synced to the cloud in a few months and the data that the FBI was looking for was surely not found there. We must remember that this is not the same as the hacks that we are used to seeing. This is not a case of hackers fishing for phones which they can gain entry to, and simply moving on to the next phone if they can’t get in to the first. The FBI needed access to this phone, and the fear was, while trying to gain entry, they would lose the information on the iPhone. This was not something that they could risk. The FBI asked Apple for help, and Apple refused.
Courts ordered Apple to help. They were very specific in their order. To open this one iPhone, in a way which could only be used on this iPhone, and done in such a way that Apple, and only Apple, would retain the methodology to do so. Apple CEO Tim Cook responded by taking to the media, telling the public that the government was asking for a back door to all iPhones. He told the public that if they helped the FBI gain entry to this phone, then all users’ phones would be compromised. This turned in to quite the media circus. As Apple lawyers speaking in front of congress stated that it would take a team of Apple engineers months to gain entrance in to this phone, that this was a case that would drag on far to long. Quite possibly so long that the information that could be potentially found on the iPhone to be of any use to the authorities.
Then something incredible happened. As Apple enjoyed the fact that Apple’s unbreakable encryption was being spoken about daily, thousands forward to the FBI with information as to how to get in to the iPhone. One of these thousands had a method which the FBI decided to try. Saving the months of hard work it would have taken Apple engineers to crack in to the iPhone, this unnamed third party did so within days. Oddly enough, Apple’s decision not to open one iPhone for fear it could be used on other iPhones, has led to the FBI having a tool which can gain them access to seemingly all devices.
I told you last week about how the FBI would be opening an iPhone and iPod to help in the investigation of the murder of Robert and Patricia Cogdell of Arkansas. Shortly after posting that story, I ran across the story of Brittney Mills of Baton Rouge, La. The 29 year old, pregnant, Brittney Mills was at home with her 9 year old daughter when someone came to the door. Brittney opened the door, implying the person that was on the other side of that door was someone known to her. That person then shot Brittney. Luckily her 9 year old daughter was left unharmed, and Brittney was able to be resuscitated for long enough to give birth to her unborn child before passing away. There are no suspects in this case, and the case has reached a dead end. Brittney’s mother knows that her daughter kept a diary on her iPhone and suspects information as to the identity of her daughter’s killer may be on the iPhone, which authorities have been unable to open. Upon hearing this story, I contacted District Attorney Hillar Moore who informed me at that time he was in contact with the FBI and awaiting a response as to whether the FBI would be able to open the phone for them.
It appears as though help will be on it’s way. On Friday, the FBI sent a letter to it’s law enforcement partners that reads as follows;
Since recovering an iPhone from one of the San Bernardino shooters on December 3, 2015, the FBI sought methods to gain access to the data stored on it. As the FBI continued to conduct its own research, and as a result of the worldwide publicity and attention generated by the litigation with Apple, others outside the U.S. government continued to contact the U.S. government offering avenues of possible research. In mid-March, an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method for unlocking the iPhone. That method for unlocking that specific iPhone proved successful.
We know that the absence of lawful, critical investigative tools due to the “Going Dark” problem is a substantial state and local law enforcement challenge that you face daily. As has been our longstanding policy, the FBI will of course consider any tool that might be helpful to our partners. Please know that we will continue to do everything we can to help you consistent with our legal and policy constraints. You have our commitment that we will maintain an open dialogue with you. We are in this together.
Office of Partner Engagement
It seems Apple’s decision to deny assistance to the FBI in opening a single iPhone, has lead to the FBI having all the tools they need to help it’s partners in doing something they were unable to do a few short weeks ago. The family of the victims of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, the family of the Cogdell’s, the family of Brittney Mills, and an untold number of other victims across the United States, can rest a little easier, knowing that the authorities now have the tools needed to find and prosecute the perpetrators of these heinous acts.