Last week, the US Justice Department dropped its encryption case against Apple thanks to a helping hand from a "third party." With some help, the government said it was able to access the contents of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook's iPhone 5C, and this week FBI director James Comey provided a few more details. It turns out the US government bought what Comey refers to as "a tool" from that unnamed third party to do the hacking. Comey didn't give any indication as to whether or not the method existed already or if it was constructed after the legal battle began.
"Litigation between the government and Apple over the San Bernardino phone has ended, because the government has purchased, from a private party, a way to get into that phone, 5C, running iOS 9," Comey explained. He went on to say that the tool only works on a "narrow slice of phones," which we know includes the iPhone 5C. However, CNN reports that the method doesn't allow access to models like the iPhone 5S and newer handsets.
As you might expect, the FBI remains tight-lipped in regards to the identity of the third party who provided the help, offering only vague statements. "The people we bought this from, I know a fair amount about them, and I have a high degree of confidence that they are very good at protecting it," Comey said. "Their motivations align with ours."
The government is also considering whether or not to tell Apple how it access the information, but from the FBI director's statements, cooperation doesn't seem likely. "We tell Apple, then they're going to fix it, then we're back where we started from," Comey said. The FBI has, however, starting telling members of Congress how it hacked the phone, briefing high-ranking officials over the last week. We reached out to the FBI for more information on the matter and we'll update this post when/if we hear back.