How a terrorist's iPhone became the 'poster child' for the FBI's encryption challenge

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Since 2014, the FBI has been pushing technology companies and policymakers to come up with a way to market secure smartphones and communications applications that also allow for the lawful access via warrant to encrypted communications.

In 2015, the case of the San Bernardino massacre and the locked iPhone 5 of perpetrator Syed Rizwan Farook presented the FBI with a fast-moving case of an inaccessible device that might contain actionable threat information. The FBI pressed Apple in court to obtain the ability to get access to the locked phone, while pursuing its own hacks with vendors.

Now a Justice Department oversight report released March 27, 2018, found that just weeks after then-FBI Director James Comey testified to Congress in 2016 that the bureau had no way to access the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter, FBI technical analysts were in conversations with vendors who communicated that an alternative method of accessing the device was close at hand.

The inspector general's report details how the Remote Operations Unit within the bureau’s Operational Technology Division (OTD) had ongoing discussions with a vendor in February 2016 who claimed to be 90 percent of the way towards completing a method to unlock iPhones. According to the unit chief, ROU was not initially involved in the bureau’s efforts to unlock Farook's iPhone, nor was it asked to assist the group that was assigned to the task until a Feb. 11, 2016, meeting that set in motion the outreach to security vendors for an alternative solution.

The OIG ultimately found that because the first successful demonstration of this technique took place at or around March 20, 2016, Comey was not lying when he testified to Congress on February 9 and March 1 that the FBI was not aware of other methods to access the shooter’s phone. However, the revelation raises questions around whether the bureau had exhausted all of its options and why it has continued to press lawmakers and tech companies since then for broader access to locked and encrypted devices and applications.

Then-Executive Assistant Director of the FBI Amy Hess, who initially referred the matter to the Inspector General’s Office, told investigators that at a certain point "she became concerned that she was not getting a straight answer to the question whether OTD had any way of getting into the phone." She also told investigators that the head of the office responsible for finding a way to access the phone, the Cryptographic and Electronic Analysis Unit, "did not seem to want to find a technical solution, and that perhaps he knew of a solution but remained silent in order to pursue his own agenda of obtaining a favorable court ruling against Apple."

"According to EAD Hess," the report states, "the problem with the Farook iPhone encryption was the 'poster child' case for the Going Dark challenge." 

Although the FBI eventually unlocked Farook's phone with the help of a vendor, it cost the bureau approximately $1 million, according to some reports.

The watchdog report notes that a subsequent OIG investigation did not find evidence that anyone intentionally withheld information or misled bureau leaders, but that CEAU “did not pursue all avenues in the search for a solution” and did not canvass vendors the way other units did.

Inexpensive phone hacks

Since then, the FBI's options for accessing locked devices have only expanded. A new product from Grayshift promises to unlock iPhones for as little as $50 per device.  The device, called Graykey, has already attracted the attention of at least three federal agencies, and at that price point could be an option for virtually any federal, state or local law enforcement agency.

Motherboard reported on March 24 that the State Department issued a purchase order for GrayKey on March 6 for $15,000.  According to the cybersecurity firm Malwarebytes, the Grayshift's $15,000 offering allows a customer to unlock up to 300 phones.  There is also a $30,000 option that does not cap the number of unlockings.

Public records also show that the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI are also looking into GrayKey and similar iOS hacking tools.  On March 8, both agencies issued separate requests for quotations looking for technology similar to GreyKey’s forensic workstation.

The FBI's Electronic Device Analysis Unit determined the GreyKey forensic software meets the agency's Computer Analysis Response Team's mandatory requirements to "provide adequate capability against an ever-growing spectrum of mobile devices."  Since not all mobile devices use the same type of encryption, the FBI wrote in its justification of GreyKey that the company makes "several products" to "ensure mission success."

The interest in GrayKey comes as federal officials are again calling for tech firms to build in ways for law enforcement to access encrypted mobile devices. Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray called his agency's inability to access the content of 7,800 devices during the 2017 fiscal year "a major public safety issue" that affected investigations.

According to the New York Times, the administration "circulated a memo last month among security and economic agencies outlining ways to think about solving the problem."

Also last month, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a framework on when it makes sense to break encryption methods in an effort to force policymakers to consider security risks and unforeseen consequences as the result of breaking the encryption. 

While the framework had input from a variety of academic institutions and company officials from Microsoft, Google and Intel, it doesn’t make up for the relatively little information that exists in case law when it comes to unlocking cellphones, said Nate Cardozo, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"Service providers are required to let law enforcement know about the capabilities of their devices under the Secured Communications Act," Cardozo said. "Service providers also have the ability to voluntarily share information if there is a situation with a ticking time bomb like a kidnapping, but it is the Wild West when it comes to case law for unlocking phones."

About the Authors

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.


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