The FBI Paid More Than $1 Million To Crack San Bernardino iPhone

The FBI paid more than a million dollars to unlock the San Bernardino iPhone, but didn’t find any links to ISIS. Did the FBI get its money’s worth?

FBI Director James Comey was speaking at a security conference today, when he was asked about how much the FBI paid to have the San Bernardino iPhone unlocked – after attempts to convince Apple to develop a backdoor into the popular iOS 9 failed.

“[It cost] more than I will make in the remainder of this job, which is seven years and four months for sure,” said FBI Director James Comey today.

According to the Washington Post, Comey paused as if performing the math in his head, before confirming that access to the San Bernardino iPhone cost the FBI upward of $1 million, some analysts put the figure closer to $1.3 million. It’s the first time that FBI Director Comey has commented on the cost of an investigative tool used in the San Bernardino case, and due to the high profile nature of the FBI’s fight with Apple, it’s no surprise that Comey continues to receive questions about the murky circumstances which brought about the iPhone’s decryption. Comey defends the decision to pay for the hack, despite rumors that the iPhone contained no information on links to ISIS.

“It was in my view, worth it,” said FBI Director James Comey today.

Tech news outlet The Verge did the math, using the publicly available information about FBI Director James Comey’s projected income for the remainder of his term as Director of the FBI – Comey will make around 1.3 million in his remaining time, and his statements today confirm that the San Bernardino iPhone hack was extremely costly.

The San Bernardino iPhone may have been worth the $1.3 million price tag the FBI paid, but what remains unclear is precisely who unlocked the phone. The FBI stated that the NSA was unable to do it, and that the FBI’s own technical experts couldn’t do it either. Early rumors suggested secretive Israeli firm Cellebrite was involved and may have unlocked the iPhone for the FBI, but the Washington Post suggests the FBI may have contracted independent hackers to break into the iPhone.

The amount the FBI paid to have the San Bernardino iPhone unlocked could be much higher than Director Comey’s quoted figure, but The Verge speculates that $1.3 million sounds about right – past bounties on digital exploits have come close to or exceeded that figure, but not by much. An exploit broker offered about $1 million just last year to anyone who could figure out a web-based exploit for iOS 9.

The FBI may have paid a king’s ransom for access to the iPhone, but according to the FBI’s 2017 budget, over half a billion dollars has been allocated for “cyber-investigative” capabilities and the $1.3 million figure is just a drop in the bucket. Still, FBI Director Comey suggested today that he’d rather not rely on expensive outside contractors for future cases. The FBI, Comey says, just can’t afford to shell out about a million dollars every time it needs a new phone unlocked.

“I’m hoping that we can somehow get to a place where we have a sensible solution, or set of solutions, that doesn’t involve hacking, it doesn’t involve spending tons of money in a way that’s un-scalable,” said FBI Director Comey, discussing the exorbitant cost of unlocking the San Bernardino iPhone.

Ever since the FBI paid upward of $1.3 million to outside contractors, the FBI has been sharply criticized for not disclosing the iPhone vulnerability to Apple – out of fear that Apple will issue a patch that will fix the exploit and close the backdoor the FBI paid so dearly to acquire. Earlier this year, Apple refused to unlock the phone, or to develop a tool which would do the job — stating firmly that a backdoor into the iPhone is too dangerous a tool for anyone to have.

[Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images]