Report: FBI Hired Hackers to Crack Shooter's iPhone

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The FBI reportedly employed professional hackers to help crack a San Bernardino terrorist's iPhone.

According to The Washington Post, officials used a previously unknown security flaw to unlock the handset without erasing any data. The bureau's mysterious collaborators are, as the Post suggested, "from the sometimes shadowy world of hackers and security researchers who profit from finding flaws in companies' software or systems."

Dubbed "gray hat" hackers, these programmers won't alert manufacturers to exploits, instead hoping the exposed vulnerability will increase in value.

Since Apple introduced encryption by default with iOS 8, federal agents have had a tougher time accessing handsets. Apple says cracking these modern devices would require it to create an entirely new operating system—something it refused to do for the iPhone 5c used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook.

Ultimately, the bureau was able to open the smartphone, but its undisclosed method works only on "a narrow slice" of devices. In a recent speech at Kenyon College in Ohio, FBI Director James Comey said the agency purchased a third-party tool that applies exclusively to an iPhone 5c running iOS 9.

Details have not yet been shared with Apple; according to Comey, discussions are ongoing, but the agency is concerned that the tech titan will patch the hole (and others like it), and "we're back where we started from."

Some U.S. senators, however, have reportedly been briefed on the FBI's iPhone hacking secrets, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Richard Burr (R-NC), who are working together on a new bill to limit the use of encryption in consumer technology.

There was some speculation that the feds received assistance from Israeli security firm Cellebrite to unlock the phone, but the Post dismissed those claims.

The FBI did not immediately respond to PCMag's request for comment.

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