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

According to an oversight report, a senior FBI official became concerned that techies in the bureau were slow-walking a plan to crack the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter in the hope of obtaining a favorable court verdict.

Shutterstock  ID: 667735969 By PopTika
 

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."

NEXT STORY: CBP to consolidate IT offices

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.