Shadowy hacking underworld may be helping the FBI break into jihadi iPhone

(Cyberwar.news) In recent days following reports that the FBI may not need Apple after all to gain access to a locked iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino jihadists, many in the intelligence and technology communities speculated about how the nation’s top federal law enforcement agency would be able to gain access on its own.

Some thought that perhaps the National Security Agency, with its encryption-breaking technology, would be able to help the FBI bypass the phone’s security password without triggering a full loss of data. Others put forth the theory that perhaps Apple might provide “backdoor” access to the FBI on the sly, in order to save its reputation for customers.

However, as CBS News reported last week, the answer may actually lie in a shadowy hacking industry, one that rarely makes headlines but is nonetheless utilized by government agencies when they meet technological – or legal – resistance.

It turns out, that secretive underworld also specializes in hacking smartphones, and one of the companies may well be assisting the FBI in trying to break into the San Bernardino phone.

Early last week the FBI abruptly put its legal battle with Apple on hold and in doing so announced that an “outside party” had approached the agency with a possible way to unlock the phone. In an update with reporters later in the week, FBI Director James Comey said the method being employed “may work,” and if so, that would make Apple’s cooperation unnecessary.

CBS News reported further:

The announcement has thrown a spotlight on a group of digital forensics companies, contractors and freelance consultants that make a living cracking security protections on phones and computers. Comey said the publicity around the Apple case encouraged such people to come forward with new ideas.

Currently most of these firms keep a low profile, since most of their business is with governments and law enforcement – there’s no reason for them to advertise. Also, it is in their best interests to remain silent about how they help governments, meaning the technological aspect, according to Christopher Soghoian, the principal technology expert for the ACLU.

“The companies won’t share their secrets. It’s their special sauce,” Soghoian told CBS News. “And they certainly won’t tell Apple how they’re doing what they’re doing.”

At present nobody outside of the Department of Justice seems to know who is helping the FBI, but many have speculated that it could be Cellebrite, an Israel-based forensics company that lists thousands of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, militaries and more than 90 countries as clients – though it is just one of several potential firms. The company would not comment on the record.

Founded in 1999, Cellebrite has inked contracts with the FBI dating back to at least 2013, CBS News reported. The company manufactures devices that give law enforcement and other entities the capability to extract and decode data such as contacts, texts and pictures from more than 15,000 kinds of smartphones and mobile devices.

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