FBI paid 'over $1.3m' to hack iPhone

Agency director says sum paid to get into San Bernardino shooter's phone was 'worth it'

WASHINGTON • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey has said the agency paid more to get into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters than he will make in the remaining seven years and four months of his employment.

According to figures from the FBI and the US Office of Management and Budget, Mr Comey's annual salary as of January last year was US$183,300 (S$247,300). Without a raise or bonus, Mr Comey will make US$1.34 million over the remaining term of his job.

That suggests the FBI paid the largest-ever publicised fee for a hacking job, easily surpassing the US$1 million paid by US information security company Zerodium to break into phones.

Speaking on Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in London, Mr Comey was asked by a moderator how much the FBI paid for the software that eventually broke into the iPhone.

"A lot. More than I will make in the remainder of this job, which is seven years and four months, for sure," Mr Comey said. "But it was, in my view, worth it."

The Justice Department said in March it had unlocked the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone with the help of an unidentified third party and dropped its case against Apple, ending a high-stakes legal clash but leaving the broader fight over encryption unresolved.

Mr Comey said the FBI will be able to use software used on the San Bernardino phone on other 5C iPhones running iOS 9 software.

There are 16 million 5C iPhones in use in the United States, estimates from research firm IHS Technology show. Eighty-four per cent of iOS devices overall are running iOS 9 software, according to Apple.

The FBI gained access to the iPhone used by Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, on Dec 2.

The case raised the debate over whether technology companies' encryption technologies protect privacy or endanger the public by blocking law enforcement access to information. Mr Comey said the litigation in the case had inspired a "marketplace around the world" for people to break into an Apple 5C running iOS 9.

"Somebody approached us from outside of the government and said, 'We think we've come up with a solution.' And we tested and tested and tested it, and then we purchased it."

He acknowledged the fundamental principles in conflict in the case and said he was glad that, at least in this instance, a way outside the court was found.

"Litigation is not a great place to resolve hard values questions that implicate all kinds of things that all of us care about," he said.

"We have a problem where all of us share a set of values that are in conflict. We have to figure out how to resolve privacy and security on the Internet and on our devices with public safety."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2016, with the headline 'FBI paid 'over $1.3m' to hack iPhone'. Subscribe