Why Won’t The FBI Tell Apple How It Unlocked iPhone?

Image courtesy of Vincent Lee

A month ago, the FBI dropped its legal effort to compel Apple to unlock a dead terrorist’s iPhone after a third party provided the agency with a way to bypass the device’s encryption. While the federal law enforcer is okay with using what it learned to aid other criminal investigations, it doesn’t look like the FBI is jumping at the chance to let Apple in on the secret.

This afternoon, FBI Director James Comey said his agency is currently trying to sort out whether or not it has an obligation to disclose the security loophole to Apple.

Keeping the exploit secret gives the FBI a way into similarly locked devices (though it reportedly won’t work on anything newer than an iPhone 5S), thus avoiding additional courtroom battles with Apple’s lawyers.

At the same time, failing to disclose the loophole could put millions of iPhone users at risk if others were to figure out how the FBI unlocked the device.

However, Comey contends that it’s more complicated than an either/or situation, saying that the threshold for determining when to disclose a loophole is to ask “are we aware of the vulnerability, or did we just buy a tool and don’t have sufficient knowledge of the vulnerability to implicate the process?”

The Director says the FBI is still determining whether it knows enough about the exploit to even share that info with Apple.

Reuters notes that the White House has a protocol for disclosing when it learns of a security vulnerability, but that existing procedures don’t quite account for what the FBI should do when a third-party private company does the unlocking for the government.

While Comey’s public statement is that the agency is close to making a decision on the matter, the Wall Street Journal’s sources say that decision is all but made, and that Apple will not be learning how its device’s security was breached.

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