FBI cracks iPhone Pro 11, raising doubts about demand for Apple backdoor

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Apple Store employee fired after stealing personal photo from customers' iPhone
Why is the FBI demanding Apple help to create a ‘backdoor’ to unlock iPhones when it has GrayKey? That's a good question.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

Revelations that the FBI has access to a tool that can unlock data on secure iPhones are raising questions as to why the agency is demanding Apple help to create a “backdoor” to recover data on the iPhones of a Florida shooting suspect.

Forbes reported Wednesday it uncovered a search warrant showing the FBI used the GrayKey hardware device to unlock an iPhone 11 Pro Max involved in a 2019 Ohio hate crime.

The report indicated the lawyer for the accused knew of no way investigators could have acquired the passcode and that they never asked his client to unlock the iPhone using Face ID.

Forbes revealed in May 2019 that the federal government spent “a record $1 million” to develop GrayKey, “the world’s most advanced iPhone hacking tech” to break passcodes and retrieve information from inside Apple devices.

The device was developed by Atlanta-based GrayShift, a company co-founded by an ex-Apple security engineer. The product itself is a box 4 inches wide by 4 inches deep by 2 inches tall, according to reports. It can crack a passcode in as little as a few hours (or as long as several days), depending on the passcode’s complexity.

Exactly how the latest GrayKey works is not known, although Apple reportedly updates its iPhones to thwart the technology of such devices.

GrayKey not working on iPhone 5 and 7?

In recent days, U.S. Attorney General William Barr accused Apple of not cooperating in the investigation to unlock two iPhones belonging to a Saudi aviation student who killed three people at a Florida Navy base in December. He demanded the company create a way to unlock iPhones. Apple denied the allegations, saying it had and is cooperating.

Given the models in the Pensacola shooting case are an iPhone 5 and 7, according to court documents, it’s unclear why the GrayKey device has not proven useful in that investigation and the FBI is again asking for Apple’s help.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is wondering the same thing. According to the report, Wyden asked the Department of Justice to explain why it is making public demands for backdoors if it already used the tool to access the newest iPhones.

FBI backdoor demands: Security theater?

Interviewed by Forbes, Nicholas Weaver, researcher and lecturer at Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute, said the FBI’s public scolding of Apple about unlocking the iPhones is nothing but “theatre.”

He said Apple designed its devices so that the company wouldn’t be able to provide information if a GrayKey or a competing product couldn’t.

“Basically, Apple made a safe where to change the combo you have to unlock the safe, and the FBI is saying ‘change the combo’ when they know full well you can’t change the combo without unlocking the safe first,” Weaver said.

The different forms of iPhone unlocking — biometric security on new models versus the use of passcodes only on older models — could be a technological challenge for GrayKey. That could be the reason behind the FBI asking Apple for additional help.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump called for Apple to ”step up to the plate” and help by unlocking the iPhones used by the accused Florida gunman. In a tweet, Trump said the U.S. government helps Apple on trade and other issues. In return, he said, the iPhone-maker should “unlock” mobile phones used by “killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements.”