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.

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Susie Ochs

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