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Reports of Cellebrite Hacking iPhone May Be Red Herrings

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Reports of Cellebrite hacking iPhone may not be true

According to The Washington Post, reports are spreading that mobile forensics company Cellebrite may not have been the one’s to actually hack the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone for the FBI. Instead the FBI was contacted by a cadre of freelancers. These freelancers were proficient in hacking and had discovered a weakness in the iPhone’s security. They then helped the FBI hack into, and unlock the phone for a fee.

“The FBI cracked a San Bernardino terrorist’s phone with the help of professional hackers who discovered and brought to the bureau at least one previously unknown software flaw, according to the people familiar with the matter.

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 Washington post.

Original speculation that the hackers were indeed Cellebrite was caused by a $15,000 invoice from the company to the FBI, as well as several local news sources who spoke of Cellebrite’s involvement. The latest reports coupled with the fact that Cellebrite and the FBI have worked together for a long time may suggest that the former findings may not be entirely accurate. This group falls into the category of “gray hats”, a term used to define hackers with moral gray areas. “Gray hats” will not expressly try to be malicious with the exploits they find, but will also not shy away from aiding the government in spying on its own citizens for the right price. The Washington Post report explains them as:

“..gray hats,” can be controversial. Critics say they might be helping governments spy on their own citizens. Their tools, however, might also be used to track terrorists or hack an adversary spying on the United States.”

James Comey, FBI director, recently told students of The Columbus School of Law that the balance between privacy and security is among the toughest issues he has faced in his career. He told them that he did not view Apple as “demons” and that he understands their view. A USA Today article on the matter said this:

“I’m glad the litigation is gone,” Comey told students at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, adding that the “emotion around that issue was not productive.”

“Apple is not a demon; I hope people don’t perceive the FBI as a demon.”

“The government’s withdraw from San Bernardino case, the director said, has allowed both sides to “take the temperature down” while allowing a broader public debate to continue.”

Comey now claims to support Apple’s view that the courts should not decide in this matter.

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