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Phone hackers for hire: a peek into the discreet, lucrative business tapped by the FBI

Macworld Staff | June 22, 2016
When the FBI paid someone to crack the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, it didn’t just deftly bypass Apple’s objections.

Braden Perry, a Kansas City attorney specialising in regulatory and governmental matters, says the Apple-FBI case could encourage security companies to help authorities and compete for what he called "lucrative contracts". Perry notes that these companies would have to adhere to strict guidelines in their business relationships, but where this could get muddy is in places outside of the US's jurisdiction. This could open up a new avenue for individuals and companies to try to unlock phones for what Perry calls "more sinister purposes".

"In the end, the public announcement that iPhones can be unlocked through an outside party empowers others to attempt the same," he says.

That said, there is a mixed view among many of the people I spoke with over whether law enforcement agencies will now seek out external companies' help rather than serve notice to an OS maker, like Apple.

Dr Yehuda Lindell, of Israeli encryption startup Dyadic Security, suggests the FBI may decide to streamline the process by hiring its own hackers. "It would make more sense to me that the way law enforcement respond to this is to develop in-house expertise to do it themselves," Lindell says. "I can't see them always going to an external company."

Making an exception

There's another side to the encryption debate, where people want to access a phone for more sentimental reasons. An Italian man wrote a public letter to Apple in March asking the company to circumvent the encryption on his deceased son's iPhone to retrieve photographs stored on the device. "Don't deny me the memories of my son," he wrote. Much like some of the families of victims in Farook's crimes, he may be struggling to understand why an exception can't be made in such heartbreaking circumstances.

Mark Grabowski, communications professor at Adelphi University in New York, points out that phone-cracking services have always been available on the Deep Web. "Despite all the publicity the FBI's hacking of the iPhone has brought, that's where they will likely remain since it is a crime to hack into someone else's phone," Grabowski says.

The very nature of phone hacking means that even legitimate professionals have good reason to maintain a low profile. "While the US Government wants companies to help them hack into others' phones, I don't think they want these tricks shared with others," Grabowski explains. "So, I don't expect companies to be openly advertising these services anytime soon - at least not to hack into third-party [mobile] phones - unless it's an 'ethical hacking' service where they're hired to test their own client's cell phone security."

Source: Macworld AU 


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