FBI Used GrayKey to Unlock an iPhone 11 Pro Max, So Why Ask Apple for Help?

Jan 17, 2020
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A warrant has been uncovered which shows that the FBI recently unlocked an iPhone 11 Pro Max using the GrayKey tool. This raises questions on why the FBI has been approaching Apple to help with unlocking iPhones and weaken their encryption, when they already have the means to bypass security measures and access data on the devices.

The issues between the FBI and Apple have gained momentum ever since AG Barr claimed that the company has not been helpful with investigations related to the gunman involved in the Florida shooting. Further fuel was added to the fire when President Donald Trump tweeted that Apple should "step up to the plate" and help unlock phones used by criminals and "make America great again". Apple had provided a strongly worded response to AG Barr's claims that they did not provide substantive assistance:

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We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation. Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing.

In the latest update to this story, Forbes' investigation has revealed a search warrant which indicates that the GrayKey tool was used to extract data from an iPhone. As mentioned in the warrant:

One USB drive containing graykey derived forensic analysis of an iPhone 12.5...

iPhone 12.5 refers to iPhone 11 Pro Max in the above statement.

The iPhone 11 Pro Max in question was owned by Baris Ali Koch, who helped his convicted brother flee the country through document fraud and by lying to the police. As per Baris' lawyer, the iPhone 11 Pro Max was locked when it was taken as evidence. Despite this, the FBI was able to use GrayKey to extract data from the phone. It is possible that USB Restricted Mode was disabled on the iPhone, which allowed GrayKey to do its job.

Apple had introduced USB Restricted Mode with iOS 12, which is enabled by default, to specifically prevent tools like GrayKey from working. The FBI was obviously not happy with this, but it seems like they still try their luck to see if it works with iPhones. It obviously did not work with the iPhones that were owned by the attacker responsible for the shooting in Florida, which meant that the FBI had to reach out to Apple for help.

Things still don't seem to be slowing down between this latest Apple vs FBI story. As per The New York Times, Apple is preparing for another legal fight against the Justice Department to defend its stance on iPhone encryption. The last time Apple faced the Justice Department in court, every other tech giant rallied to support Apple, including its fiercest competitors.

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Executives at Apple have been surprised by the case’s quick escalation, said people familiar with the company who were not authorized to speak publicly. And there is frustration and skepticism among some on the Apple team working on the issue that the Justice Department hasn’t spent enough time trying to get into the iPhones with third-party tools, said one person with knowledge of the matter.

One thing is for sure, Tim Cook and company will not be backing down from providing encryption on iPhones. The moment they bow down and create a backdoor for the United States government, Apple will have to create it for every other government in the world. And while the backdoor might be useful for legal purposes, it will fall in the hands of the bad guys, no matter what.

You can't put the genie back in the bottle after that.

Products mentioned in this post

iPhone 11
iPhone 11
USD 699
iPhone 11 Pro
iPhone 11 Pro
USD 999
iPhone 11 Pro Max
iPhone 11 Pro Max
USD 1099

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