Despite Lawsuits, FBI Won’t Have to Reveal Details of iPhone 5c Hack Used in San Bernardino Case


A federal court has ruled that the FBI does not have to disclose the name of the vendor that was used by the government to hack into the iPhone 5c of the San Bernardino shooter. The decision comes after over a year-long battle between the Bureau and the Cupertino iPhone maker over unlocking the phone for accessing user data.

The Justice Department had first filed a lawsuit against Apple to force it to create a backdoor in iOS to help intelligence agencies get access to sensitive data. After Apple, tech companies, and the privacy advocates started a public fight against the demands, the FBI hired the services of an unnamed third-party vendor that helped the agency to unlock the iPhone 5c.

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While the battle came to an abrupt end last year, the Associated Press, Vice News, and USA Today sued the FBI, filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in September 2016, demanding details of the vendor, how much the taxpayers paid for this bypass and the hacking technique that was used.

Federal Judge Tanya S Chutkan of the District of Columbia, according to ZDNet, ruled on Saturday that revealing the details of the vendor could put the company and its tools vulnerable to a "cyberattack" since its networks aren't as sophisticated as the FBI's.

"It is logical and plausible that the vendor may be less capable than the FBI of protecting its proprietary information in the face of a cyberattack," the judge said. "The FBI's conclusion that releasing the name of the vendor to the general public could put the vendor's systems, and thereby crucial information about the technology, at risk of incursion is a reasonable one."

At one time, it was suggested that the Israeli forensics company, Cellebrite, was responsible for the iPhone 5c unlock.

When demanded how much was paid for this tool, the judge favored the government again, ruling that it would help adversaries and would harm national security.

"Releasing the purchase price would designate a finite value for the technology and help adversaries determine whether the FBI can broadly utilize the technology to access their encrypted devices," said the court.

The news organizations had argued that the "release of this information goes to the very heart of the Freedom of Information Act’s purpose, allowing the public to assess government activity – here, the decision to pay public funds to an outside entity in possession of a tool that can compromise the digital security of millions of Americans."

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They were hopeful of at least getting the price of the tool since it was already publicly mentioned by the former FBI director James Comey, who said it was more than what he would earn in his remaining seven years on the job, putting the value at around $1 million mark. This estimate was later supported by Senator Dianne Feinstein, as well.