FBI Cracks Terrorist’s iPhone -- Sans Apple

Now there's a new hole in the iPhone 5c, so what happens next?

A highly contentious legal battle between Apple and the FBI officially is over now after the US Department of Justice late yesterday withdrew its lawsuit ordering Apple to unlock an iPhone used by one of the attackers in the San Bernardino shootings.

The FBI was able to access the data in question from the iPhone 5c without the help of Apple, but from a "third party," according to the Justice Department. And so far the feds aren’t saying just how they were able to finally obtain the data, which means there’s a vulnerability Apple now must find and fix on its own if the FBI doesn’t share it with the tech firm.

It's unclear whether the FBI ultimately will share the flaw or technique with Apple. The FBI is under “no obligation” to do so, says David Raissipour, senior vice president of product and engineering at Carbonite.

“What they found is what Apple was afraid of, anyway: that there some some vulnerability ... that circumvents its security,” he says. Ideally, the FBI would share its finding with Apple, he says, but the agency likely doesn’t want to give up its edge in cracking the backlog of other locked iPhone cases.

Since Apple has made it clear it won’t play ball and provide the FBI a backdoor, the FBI had to go it alone, and that means the FBI expands its own capabilities for cracking the devices, says David Maynor, CTO at Errata Security. “Now the FBI is able to expand its 0day capabilities for good reasons.” 

So Apple’s victory of standing tall to the feds’ requests for a backdoor into this specific iPhone may be short-lived. The long-term implications, Maynor says, are that the FBI must “hoard 0day now” to conduct future similar investigations that require getting iPhone data.

Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argues that if the FBI indeed used a previously unknown vulnerability to crack the phone, it must disclose that to Apple. “Thanks to a lawsuit by EFF, the government has released its official policy for determining when to disclose security vulnerabilities, the Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP),” EFF staff attorney Andrew Crocker wrote in a blog post last night. “If the FBI used a vulnerability to get into the iPhone in the San Bernardino case, the VEP must apply, meaning that there should be a very strong bias in favor of informing Apple of the vulnerability. That would allow Apple to fix the flaw and protect the security of all its users. We look forward to seeing more transparency on this issue as well."

Apple says the FBI was out of line in its legal proceeding. “This case should never have been brought,” Apple said in a statement after the FBI’s dismissal of the suit, noting that the FBI’s demands “would have set a dangerous precedent” of backdoors into devices.

“We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along, and we will continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated,” the company said. “This case raised issues which deserve a national conversation about our civil liberties, and our collective security and privacy. Apple remains committed to participating in that discussion.”

Just how much a new hole in the iPhone 5c puts users at risk is unclear. “Ideally, it all comes down to risk,” says Chris Pierson, CSO and general counsel at Viewpost. It depends on what weakness was found, how it was exploited, and whether it’s something other attackers could abuse in similarly configured devices, he says.

“If it only applies to that specific phone with that specific operating system and only certain factors at play,” then the widespread risk would be low, Pierson says. “Whether the severity or likelihood of it being found by others, and what it means to the broader population” is the question, he says.

Also unclear is just who was the “third party” that assisted the FBI in cracking the phone. Speculation has run from security experts in the private sector to the NSA.

What happens now with the FBI-Apple relationship in the aftermath of the case? Viewpost’s Pierson says the best thing that could happen next is for the FBI to extend an “olive branch” to Apple and the security industry.

The FBI should initiate a meeting with security industry experts where the FBI could share details of the hack with “cleared members from industry and academia who would be able to provide advice, guidance, and feedback, on what the bureau can do differently and what avenues to take in the future when it happens again,” he says. “These would be just suggestions, not locking” them into anything, he notes.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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