While most rumors surrounding the unlocking of San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook’s iPhone have indicated the FBI made use of techniques used by Israeli mobile forensics firm Cellebrite, A Washington Post report indicates the bureau was aided by a group of professional security researchers.
The researchers, who typically keep a low profile, specialize in hunting for vulnerabilities in software and then in some cases selling them to the U.S. government. They were paid a one-time flat fee for the solution.
The reports says the hackers told the FBI about a previously unknown software flaw, which was used to create hardware that the bureau then used to access the iPhone. The hardware allowed the FBI to guess the passcode via “brute force” guesses, entering multiple passcodes, without erasing the device.
Before finding a way into the device in questions, the FBI had demanded that Apple create a new version of iOS that would disable the passcode security features that are built into iOS, the operating system used by the shooter’s iPhone 5c.
While previous reports indicated the FBI had signed a $15,000 contract with Cellebrite on March 21, the same day the Justice Department requested a postponement of a scheduled hearing to force Apple to comply with an order to aid in unlocking the phone, the Washington post says the bureau did not make use of Cellebrite’s services. Whichever method was used by the government to unlock the device, it resulted in the government’s dropping of the case against Apple.
The U.S. government hasn’t yet decided whether it will reveal the method used to crack the iPhone 5c to Apple, and the Cupertino firm has said it doesn’t plan to sue to obtain that information.