WASHINGTON — 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 people familiar with the matter.
The new information was then used to create a piece of hardware that helped the FBI to crack the iPhone’s four-digit personal identification number without triggering a security feature that would have erased all the data, the individuals said.
The researchers, who typically keep a low profile, specialize in hunting for vulnerabilities in software and then in some cases selling them to the US government. They were paid a one-time flat fee for the solution.
Cracking the four-digit PIN, which the FBI had estimated would take 26 minutes, was not the hard part for the bureau. The challenge from the beginning was disabling a feature on the phone that wipes data stored on the device after 10 incorrect tries at guessing the PIN code. A second feature also steadily increases the time allowed between attempts.
The bureau in this case did not need the services of the Israeli firm Cellebrite, as some earlier reports had suggested, people familiar with the matter said.
The US government now has to weigh whether to disclose the flaws to Apple, a decision that probably will be made by a White House-led group.
The people who helped the government come from the sometimes shadowy world of hackers and security researchers who profit from finding flaws in companies’ software or systems.
Some hackers, known as ‘‘white hats,’’ disclose the vulnerabilities to the firms responsible for the software or to the public so they can be fixed and are generally regarded as ethical. Others, called ‘‘black hats,’’ use the information to hack networks and steal people’s personal information.
The individuals who helped the FBI in the San Bernardino, Calif., case fall into a third category, often considered ethically murky: Researchers who sell flaws to governments, companies that make surveillance tools, or groups on the black market.
This last group, dubbed ‘‘gray hats,’’ can be controversial since critics say they might be helping governments spy on their own citizens. When selling exploits to governments or on the black market, researchers do not disclose the flaws to the companies responsible for the software, as the exploits’ value depends on the software remaining vulnerable.
In the case of the San Bernardino iPhone, the solution found by the hackers has limited shelf life.
FBI Director James B. Comey has said that the solution works only on iPhone 5Cs running the iOS 9 operating system.
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