The mystery of who cracked the fifth-year FBI’s San Bernardino shooter iPhone

by -
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

When the US government had been wanting to break into a dead iPhone terrorist some years ago, a Washington Post study revealed that it turned to an unknown Australian cybersecurity company. Situated in Sydney, Azimuth Security is a website-based company specialized in providing customers with the “best of breed technical services.”

These services enabled the FBI to unlock the cell phone of Syed Rizwan Farook, who shot and killed 14 people in southern California together with his wife Tashfeen Malik during the 2015 ‘terrorist assault’ in San Bernardino. At that time, the administration wanted, of course, to know if the couple had ties with foreign extremist groups, so the phone data of the killer was seen as a way of finding out.

So Azimuth was paid by the government for some $900,000 to literally break up the case. On Wednesday the Post announced the company contract with the Government and confirmed it by additional Motherboard reports. The news solves a long-lasting mystery of hackers’ identity, which until now has been a secret government.

Azimuth is in fact owned in Australia by L3 Technologies, a major American defense contractor which offers a range of intelligence and defense services, including to major federal agencies including the Pentagon and the Homeland Security Department.

According to the postal mail, David Wang was one of the company’s former researches to break into Farook’s phone by the cracking “specific” IOS. The exploit, called “Condor,” has been tested at the FBI headquarters several times to ensure it is safe to penetrate the systems of the phone without causing damage. Later, the feds would use it to break through successfully, finding that the couple had no links with the foreign terrorist networks, contrary to their suspicions. (Interestingly, according to the postal services, Wang is now prosecuted by Apple in an apparently unrelated matter.)

A battle between Apple and the government over encrypted technology has been launched by the case of San Bernardino iPhone, known as the new “crypt war.” The federal government primarily tried to bully Apple into decrypting its own product before the phone was actually cracked—with the FBI suing the telephone manufacturer in 2016. The technology giant refused, and the prosecution was then dropped.

Critics argued at that time—and proved correct later—that the feud did not actually involve technical telephone access. The feds were instead simply trying to set a legal precedent to allow the private sector to decrypt products for it in the future or install backdoors in encrypted technology. Indeed, a 2018 report by the inspector general of the Justice Department showed that before the FBI completed its Apple lawsuit the FBI had not tried so hard to find other options. It wanted to only force the technology company to do its job.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was written in 2018, commented that:

“We suspected from the beginning that the primary objective of the FBI to get to an iPhone found following the massive screenings in San Bernardino in December 2015 was not simply to release the device concerned. Instead, we thought the FBI’s intention in the proceedings was to get legal precedents which might force Apple to undermine its own security mechanisms.”

If anything, the new details on the case only check if the federal government has sufficient tools to spill into any unit in the country. In fact, as the existence of Azimuth proves, there is a booming market for selling this access to police services. It seems quite frank that the government should be given an extended legal authority to force companies to backdoor their own products. As long as they are the country’s top police force, we can also expect the FBI to do the work of the police.