FBI Hacking of iPhone Raises Questions About Method, Who Helped

Federal officials dropped their case against Apple on Monday night.

ByABC News
March 29, 2016, 11:36 AM

— -- Federal officials announced Monday night they successfully cracked into an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters and no longer needed Apple's help in unlocking the device.

In doing so, authorities succeeded in their goal of breaking into an iPhone used by Syed Farook but did not set any sort of legal precedent that could be used in a future case, making it a sort of lukewarm win for both Apple and federal authorities.

While the legal case has been dropped, the latest twist in the encryption tug-of-war is now raising more questions than the FBI has answered.

Who Helped the FBI?

Federal officials revealed the existence of a third party that came forward last week to offer assistance in cracking the iPhone. It's unclear whether this is one hacker or a cyber security firm.

How Did They Break Into an iPhone?

The FBI declined to comment on the technical steps taken to get into the iPhone.

"During the past week, to include the weekend, extensive testing of the iPhone was done by highly skilled personnel to ensure that the contents of the phone would remain intact once technical methods were applied. The full exploitation of the phone and follow-up investigative steps are continuing," FBI Assistant Director in Charge David Bowdich said in a statement on Monday night.

Data on iPhones is encrypted and Apple has an auto-erase function making it trickier for a third party to break into a locked phone. Make 10 unsuccessful attempts to open a locked phone using the 4-digit user-created code and the iPhone and all the data it holds is rendered inaccessible. The 4-digit code you enter into your phone initiates a complex calculation that generates a unique key to unlock the data on the phone. No key, no data. The auto-erase function, if triggered, will wipe out all the encryption keys, rendering the data on the iPhone useless.

Will the Feds Share the Solution With Apple?

Apple has been staunch in its position that creating a backdoor for government officials would undermine the security of millions of users.

The company said in a statement Monday night that it believed the case "should never have been brought."

"From the beginning, we objected to the FBI's demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent. As a result of the government’s dismissal, neither of these occurred," Apple said. "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."

What Does This Mean for Future Cases?

The legal precedent authorities were hoping to set didn't happen, essentially punting the issue down the line for future cases that may arise.

"This seemed like the perfect case and that has evaporated but now the question is, will Congress step in?" Mark Bartholomew, a law professor at the University of Buffalo who studies encryption and cyber law, told ABC News. "This is such an important story, so I could see Congress weighing in on this issue. We need a more fine-tuned answer than what we are getting from this case. Congress needs to be precise about what this technology should look like and when consumer interests would trump law enforcement."

What Was on the iPhone?

Officials said they "successfully retrieved the data stored" on the device, but it's unclear whether that data will be of any use. Authorities wanted to access Farook's iPhone to see if there was information about who he was communicating with and whether more attacks were planned.

"We promised to explore every investigative avenue in order to learn whether the San Bernardino suspects were working with others, were targeting others, or whether or not they were supported by others," Bowdich said Monday night. "While we continue to explore the contents of the iPhone and other evidence, these questions may not be fully resolved, but I am satisfied that we have access to more answers than we did before and that the investigative process is moving forward."