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FBI turned to hackers for help unlocking terrorist's iPhone

The FBI has finally managed to gain access to an iPhone owned by one of the terrorists responsible for the San Bernardino attack in 2015.

Apple has been quite vocal about the importance of encryption on its phones and even refused several times to write code to unlock the attacker's iPhone 5C. The company argued that if it were to write the code necessary to break its own encryption, this same code could potentially be used to unlock other iPhones by the FBI or even by cybercriminals if they were to gain access to it.

To crack the iPhone in question, the FBI turned to professional hackers who were able to use a previously unknown software flaw to unlock the device. The information they provided was then used to create a piece of hardware to aid in cracking the phone's four digit passcode.

The FBI experienced quite a bit of difficulty unlocking the phone on its own due to the security measures that Apple builds into each one of its iPhones. Each phone contains a security feature that will erase all of the data on a device if a user unsuccessfully tries to input a passcode 10 times. Another feature steadily increases the time allowed between attempts at unlocking a phone should the passcode be incorrect.

Cracking the four digit PIN was not the difficult part for the FBI, rather it was overcoming these two security features. The information provided by the hackers in regard to the software flaw was what allowed the bureau to build a device to work around the security measures that Apple had put in place.

The Director of the FBI - James B. Comey - has come out and said that the solution that was found that led to the unlocking of the iPhone would only be possible on an iPhone 5Cs that was running iOS9. However, the bureau has decided against informing Apple in regard to the details of the software flaw that allowed it to unlock the phone.

While the FBI was eventually successful at unlocking the San Bernardino attacker's iPhone, the exploit it used will only offer access to a small number of the devices out there and once Apple updates its mobile operating system it could disappear forever.

Image Credit: / Shutterstock

Anthony Spadafora
After living and working in South Korea for seven years, Anthony now resides in Houston, Texas where he writes about a variety of technology topics for ITProPortal.