You Should Be Worried If The FBI Can Hack iPhones Without Apple

"Everybody's iPhone is now vulnerable."
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc.
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc.

The Justice Department said Monday that it might not need Apple's help unlocking an iPhone connected to the San Bernardino terror attack. 

An outside party has found a possible way for the FBI to access data stored on the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, a suspect in the attack, according to a Justice Department filing. 

While this development could mark a cease-fire in the government's fight with Apple over data privacy, it also raises a thorny new issue. If the government, using an unnamed third party, can access Farook's iPhone data without Apple's help, then iPhones everywhere might have a weakness that can be exploited by hackers, according to technology security expert Bruce Schneier.

"Everybody’s iPhone is now vulnerable," Schneier told The Huffington Post.

If the Justice Department can enlist a third party to crack Farook's iPhone, then other iPhones can almost certainly be hacked, Schneier said. 

"In a world of mass production, I do not know a mechanism by which this [hack] only works on one phone," he added.  

Everybody’s iPhone is now vulnerable. Bruce Schneier, technology security expert

During a conference call with reporters Monday, a senior Apple executive said the company wants more information about the method that would be used to hack Farook's iPhone, according to a report in The New York Times. 

The Justice Department has not yet said whether it will disclose that information to Apple. If it doesn't, the company might not be able to fix the weakness in its iPhones, according to Schneier.  

The emergence of a third party capable of hacking the iPhone doesn't surprise Schneier, who said the government has never needed Apple's help extracting data from Farook's iPhone. 

"We’ve been saying this all along," Schneier said. "There are other ways of getting at this phone."

The Justice Department's alleged third-party hack isn't the only vulnerability in Apple products to surface recently. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University said Monday they had discovered a way to decrypt photos and videos sent using Apple's secure iMessage service, according to the The Washington Post. The researchers alerted Apple to the vulnerability issue, and the company reportedly fixed the problem in its iOS 9.3 update. 

The dispute between Apple and the FBI began in February, when Apple refused to comply with a court order to help the FBI unlock Farook's iPhone. Apple has insisted since then that helping the FBI crack the phone would set a dangerous precedent and make customer data less secure.

Speaking at a product launch on Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook reiterated the company's commitment to protecting customer privacy. “We will not shrink from this responsibility,” Cook said. 

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