US Federal Agencies Are Spending Millions To Hack iPhones

ICE bought a hacking tool that would allow them to hack locked iPhones.The United States Federal Building at 300 East 3rd Street in downtown North Platte, Nebraska houses the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Social Security Administration (SSA), and Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Nebraska Court of Appeals, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and is managed by the General Services Administration (GSA). Image from Tony Webster | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

When people on the streets tell you that the government is spying on you, they might be right in saying that. Law enforcement and other federal agencies have been purchasing several technologies that would allow them to check up on Americans – even against their will.

A recent $1.2 million purchase was made by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a technology that would essentially hack into a locked iPhone. The acquisition underscores how law enforcement and other federal agencies are using technology in violation of Americans’ rights to privacy.

The said contract has two components. The first one, valued at $384,000 and was made in September 2018, and another made this month for $819,000. Sources revealed that the said hacking equipment will go to the agency’s Homeland Security Investigation unit. The unit focuses on the investigation on immigration crimes, drug trafficking, child exploitation, and money laundering, according to Thomas Brewster from Forbes.

Nonetheless, the ICE refused to disclose how the equipment will be used and for what purpose will it serve, but according to Washington Post, the contract come amid heightened and pervasive concern about the warrantless searches of phones and laptops that ICE and Customs and Border Protection conduct at airports and other points of entry following the stringent immigration crackdown by the Trump administration.

The American Civil Liberties, who sued the US government over the warrantless searches in the airport by two federal agencies said that they found that “CBP and ICE are asserting near-unfettered authority to search and seize travelers’ devices at the border.” That includes “for purposes far afield from the enforcement of immigration and customs laws” including “investigating and enforcing bankruptcy, environmental, and consumer protection laws.”

The said contract of ICE is with a company known as Grayshift. The company is known for marketing tools to law enforcement specifically those that can hack into locked iPhones. They have been involved in so many conflicts with Apple as the tech company develops encryptions that would block Grayshift’s ability to hack into the device, but Grayshift seems always to find a new way to get in.

In the past, Grayshift has signed contracts with different federal agencies since 2017 including ICE, the Secret Service, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The total amount of deal the company inked with the U.S. government reaches $2.6 million according to the information on a government spending database.

In 2015, the FBI had waged a high-stakes lawsuit against Apple, the manufacturer of iPhones, because according to them, the security features in the phones make it hard for law enforcement and investigation agencies to bypass. According to the FBI, the advanced encryption systems in iPhones are hurting their investigations and are allowing criminals and terrorists to “go dark” online. They have been complaining that tech companies have been very uncooperative in helping them bypass those encryptions and now it seems that they are turning into another technology to avoid them without the permission of the user or the phone manufacturer.

Despite the hot water that federal agencies have been bathing in as the issue on hacking and encryption breaking becomes more public, the FBI, among other federal agencies in question, is yet to prove that their inability to bypass the said encryption systems thwarts their investigation.

In fact, in the 2015 lawsuit that FBI filed to compel Apple to help them decrypt the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, the bureau ultimately withdraw its demand due to the lack of proof of the necessity of decryption. Sources suggest that an unnamed third party offered to help the agency hack into the iPhone for a hefty price.

The specific “help” that the third party offered was to disable a safeguard that would have wiped the phone’s contents after too many wrong password guesses. Interestingly, this method is similar to what Grayshift is offering. When this safeguard is disabled, federal agencies can run a program that tries all possible password combinations until they finally land on the right one without the risk of the content being wiped out.

Critics argue that the rush to litigate their demands against Apple is aimed not to hack the specific iPhone used by the shooter in the case but instead to set a precedent that would make it easier for them to request from the court a similar demand in the future.

About the Author

Al Restar
A consumer tech and cybersecurity journalist who does content marketing while daydreaming about having unlimited coffee for life and getting a pet llama. I also own a cybersecurity blog called Zero Day.

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