The Department of Justice is unlikely to reveal to Apple exactly how it was able to hack the locked iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters, according to a federal law enforcement official.
The FBI reportedly paid Israeli tech security firm Cellebrite $15,000 for its assistance in coming up with a way to get around the iPhone’s security without auto-erasing the contents on the device. It announced that it had been able to unlock the iPhone this week — dropping its case against Apple for refusing to help soon after.
One possibility is that the San Bernardino iPhone hackers utilized something called NAND Mirroring (seen in the video below), in which a hacker copies back disk content to allow for unlimited passcode attempts. However, it is also reported that the specific FBI hack only works on the iPhone 5c, which may rule out this approach.
There is no legal reason why the government is compelled to reveal the information to Apple, which would then have the option of exploring ways to plug that particular vulnerability. This is what Apple routinely does when jailbreakers discover vulnerabilities in versions of iOS software — often going as far as to publicly acknowledge groups like Pangu Team who have (inadvertently) helped the company tighten up its security.
In other words, for now FBI director James Comey is no doubt enjoying having a bit of knowledge Apple doesn’t necessarily have access to. Then again, Apple’s been playing this same game of cat-and-mouse with would-be hackers for years.