FBI's iPhone hack may come from Israeli security firm

Apple may be off the hook if an Israeli company's method helps the FBI crack into the San Bernardino, California, terrorist's iPhone.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
2 min read

The FBI is getting iPhone-hacking help from somewhere. An Israeli company currently tops the list of suspects.

James Martin/CNET

The FBI decided on Monday it might not need Apple's help to unlock an iPhone 5C used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. Now we may know why.

Cellebrite, a privately held Israeli company that specializes in transferring or extracting data from phones, is helping the FBI unlock the iPhone, according to a report in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Wednesday. If its method is successful, the FBI will no longer need Apple's help with the iPhone, unnamed industry sources told the paper.

Apple and the FBI were due to face off in court on Tuesday in order to resolve the feud over the iPhone. Apple refused to comply with the FBI's court order demanding that it create a special version of its iOS software that would undermine the iPhone's security. There were rumours that Apple engineers might refuse to carry out the project, but in the end, the court date was postponed after the FBI believed it had found a way to unlock the iPhone without Apple's help.

It's too soon to declare it a legal victory, Apple's lawyers said on Tuesday. If the alternative technique is not successful, the two parties will find themselves in court after all.

The FBI insists the court order is a one-time request. Apple, however, has spun this into a broader theme of protecting the data of its consumers.

Indeed, Apple is concentrating on beefing up its encryption. With the latest version of iOS, released on Monday, you will need to enter the user passcode to access iCloud data when you have two-factor authentication enabled.

The FBI, meanwhile, had asked Apple to provide it with a method to disable the auto-erase feature, which deletes the phone's data if you get the passcode wrong 10 times. This is where Cellebrite comes in.

Headquartered in Tel Aviv, the company makes a range of mobile data products used by the military, law enforcement and corporate security under the name of UFED. These, its website says, "enable the bit-for-bit extraction and in-depth decoding and analysis of data from thousands of mobile devices."

One of the company's devices, the UFED Touch, can be used to bypass the pattern lock, passport or PIN for Android phones. It also offers the "widest support for extraction and decoding from Apple devices."

"I cannot offer any comment on this particular case," said a Cellebrite spokesman. "They have worked with the FBI in the past -- that is a matter of public record. I cannot speculate what their involvement may or may not be in this case."

"I am not able to comment on the identity of the outside party," said an FBI spokesman.