The FBI paid more than $1 million to hack the San Bernardino iPhone

We still don't know anything about where the hack came from or how it works, but we now know it was expensive.

In the San Bernardino case, it turned out that the FBI didn’t actually need Apple’s help to access the data in shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone 5c. But if Apple had helped, it certainly would have been cheaper.

Speaking at a security conference in London, FBI Director James Comey was asked how much the bureau paid the third-party gray-hat hackers for the tool that broke into the iPhone. “A lot, more than I will make in the remainder of this job, which is seven years and four months, for sure. But it was in my view worth it.”

If Comey wasn’t exaggerating, back-of-the-napkin math puts the total price above $1 million: He makes about $180,000 per year, and if you multiply that by 7.3, you get $1,314,000.

It’s a strange tidbit for Comey to share since the FBI has refused to disclose anything else: who the hackers were, how the hack works, or if it makes other phones vulnerable. We don’t know what was on the phone—one report claimed not much useful, but another claimed that the lack of information was helpful in itself. All we really know is that breaking into the phone cost a lot.

Apple would have been allowed to bill the government for its own effort and expenses had it cooperated with the All Writs Act warrant. (And if San Bernardino County, the iPhone’s owner and Farook’s employer, had enrolled the phone in the multi-device management system it already paid for, the government could have gotten into the phone for free.)

Instead, Apple refused the FBI’s request to write a special version of iOS, unaffectionately nicknamed GovtOS, that it could install on Farook’s iPhone 5c running iOS 9. The FBI wanted GovtOS to bypass the feature that would erase the iPhone after 10 failed attempts at the passcode, plus remove the time limit between attempts and allow the passcodes to be entered electronically. Apple objected to the order to write an entirely new tool to weaken its own security, claiming that the request is an overreach of the All Writs Act and also violates the company’s free speech by compelling it to write code it found offensive.

A court hearing was scheduled, there were rumors that key Apple engineers would quit if it came to that, but then suddenly, the FBI said it had found a way into the phone, and called the whole thing off. Well, the San Bernardino case anyway—Apple is still fighting a case in the Eastern District of New York, in which the government wants data from a locked iPhone 5s running iOS 7. A judge already ruled in favor of Apple, but the government is currently appealing that ruling.

Elsewhere, lawmakers are holding hearings and writing new legislation to define what help tech companies should give law enforcement without compromising the security of millions of innocent citizens who happen to use smartphones.

Comey has said that the purchased hack is good for only a “narrow slice” of iPhones, but the FBI is also trying to share the wealth by assisting other law enforcement agencies who have locked, encrypted phones in their own evidence lockers.

After all, if you pay upwards of $1 million for something, you'd better try to get all the value from it that you can.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags AppleiPhone 5C

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Susie Ochs

Macworld.com
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Crucial Ballistix Elite 32GB Kit (4 x 8GB) DDR4-3000 UDIMM

Learn more >

Gadgets & Things

Lexar® Professional 1000x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Plox Star Wars Death Star Levitating Bluetooth Speaker

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

GGG Evaluation Team

Kathy Cassidy

STYLISTIC Q702

First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni

STYLISTIC Q572

For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Steph Mundell

LIFEBOOK UH574

The Fujitsu LifeBook UH574 allowed for great mobility without being obnoxiously heavy or clunky. Its twelve hours of battery life did not disappoint.

Andrew Mitsi

STYLISTIC Q702

The screen was particularly good. It is bright and visible from most angles, however heat is an issue, particularly around the Windows button on the front, and on the back where the battery housing is located.

Simon Harriott

STYLISTIC Q702

My first impression after unboxing the Q702 is that it is a nice looking unit. Styling is somewhat minimalist but very effective. The tablet part, once detached, has a nice weight, and no buttons or switches are located in awkward or intrusive positions.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?