A trio of news organizations — consisting of the Associated Press, Vice Media, and Gannett — have petitioned a judge in the United States to force the FBI to reveal the exact amount of money it paid for the technology used to crack open an iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook (via BBC).
The same group of news organizations sued the FBI last September to gain more information about how exactly the FBI entered the iPhone, what “outside party” helped with the process, and how much the government paid for it. The new filing appears to tone down that original lawsuit with a focus on the amount spent on the hack tool, and not how it works or who exactly provided it.
Although the FBI never confirmed the rumors, it was widely reported that Israeli mobile software developer Cellebrite was hired to get into Farook’s iPhone 5c. A price for the developer’s services has only ever been speculated upon.
According to the court filing acquired by the BBC, the three news organizations claim that there is “no adequate justification” for the FBI to continue to withhold the information related to the cost of opening the iPhone. The information they ask for is also specified as not a risk to national security if it does become public, as they simply want “to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the event.”
“While it is undisputed that the vendor developed the iPhone access tool, the government has identified no rational reason why knowing the vendor’s identity is linked in any way to the substance of the tool, much less how such knowledge would reveal any information about the tool’s application,” lawyers for the news organisations wrote in the filing to the US District Court in Washington.
“Release of this information goes to the very heart of the Freedom of Information Act’s purpose, allowing the public to assess government activity – here, the decision to pay public funds to an outside entity in possession of a tool that can compromise the digital security of millions of Americans.”
Back in the midst of the story’s development, the identity of the contractors for the iPhone hack was said to be a closely held secret within the FBI, with FBI director James Comey even in the dark as to who exactly was hired to break into the iPhone. While many reports referenced Cellebrite, another suggested it was instead done with the help of “professional hackers,” consisting of a “gray hat” researcher who sells flaws to governments, black market groups, or companies that create surveillance tools.
Even though the case is still one of interest among both parties, towards the end of the drama last year the FBI claimed that it found “nothing of real significance” in Farook’s iPhone, stating that it answered a few questions about the San Bernardino shooting but provided no new leads.
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