Following the terrorist attack in San Bernardino in December of 2015, there was a lot of controversy over whether Apple should help the FBI open one of the terrorist’s phones. Ultimately, the FBI found a private company that helped crack it open, but we had no idea how much that effort cost the government. Until now.
As it turns out, it cost the FBI roughly $900,000 to hack the locked iPhone. The revelation went largely unnoticed during last Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with FBI Director James Comey. But by Friday the Associated Press realized that Senator Diane Feinstein had inadvertently given out the number.
“I was so struck when San Bernardino happened and you made overtures to allow that device to be opened, and then the FBI had to spend $900,000 to hack it open,” Feinstein said at the hearing. “And as I subsequently learned of some of the reason for it, there were good reasons to get into that device.”
Various news agencies have fought through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to get the precise figure that the FBI paid. The FBI has argued that the number should remain classified. But it appears that Feinstein may have messed up that argument for them.
The FBI fought a long a protracted battle with Apple over the unlocking of the phone. It was as much about setting up a precedent and a new expectation in the public relations sense than it was about getting valuable information off the terrorist’s phone.
It’s still unclear what the specifics of the hack entailed, or even who precisely cracked the phone for the FBI. But there are unconfirmed reports that the agency will be able to use the same hack again in the future. Early speculation had put the cost at around $1.3 million, which wasn’t too far off, if Feinstein’s numbers are accurate.
There are still a lot of things we don’t know about the San Bernardino case, and still heated debate about the role that private tech companies have to help law enforcement after a terrorist attack. But we at least know what it costs for a federal agency to crack a phone: $900,000.
You can watch the video of Feinstein’s slip-up at the 2 hour and 55 minute mark on C-SPAN.