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FBI Says Apple Will Need to Make Sure Hackers Don’t Steal an iPhone Backdoor

FBI Director James Comey dismisses concerns that the software he’s asking Apple to create could be stolen and misused by hackers.
(Image: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In its fight against the FBI over the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, Apple has made it clear that it doesn't want to create custom software for the FBI—not just because of the bad legal precedent that would set, but also because Apple is worried about creating a new "hacking department" that would become a juicy target for hackers and foreign spies.

But for the FBI, Apple has nothing to worry about, given that the company knows how to protect its own software "pretty well."


FBI Director James Comey dismissed Apple's concerns on Tuesday during a congressional hearing on the Bureau's legal fight to force Apple to disable security features on the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two alleged terrorists who killed 14 people in an attack in San Bernardino, California, last December.

"In this particular case we have confidence—and I think it's justified—that Apple is highly professional in protecting its own innovation, its own information," Comey said during a congressional hearing. "So the idea here is: you keep it, you figure it out how to store it, you even take the phone and protect it."

"So the idea here is: you keep it, you figure it out how to store it, you even take the phone and protect it."

Comey was answering a question from a congressional representative who asked whether the Bureau was worried that the tool the FBI is asking Apple to create could be stolen and used against innocent users.

While Comey admitted that in general he's concerned that tools created to help law enforcement agencies could be misused by hackers, in this case, he trusts Apple's security measures.

"I think that's something they do pretty well," he added.

But a person close to the company told Motherboard last week that Apple is worried that if the company is forced to create a custom forensic tool for the FBI in this case—Apple called it GovtOS— it will have to do it again, which means it will have to create a special team dedicated to processing such requests creating special software for the FBI.

That team—or "hacking department" as Apple described it in its court filing—would be a "big bull's eye" on Apple's "front door," according to the source, who spoke to Motherboard on condition of anonymity.

An Apple spokesperson told Motherboard that "this point exactly was covered in Tim Cook's initial letter, email to employees, and the Q&A," but didn't add anything else.

"Law enforcement agents around the country have already said they have hundreds of iPhones they want Apple to unlock if the FBI wins this case," Apple said in an open letter to customers. "In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks. Of course, Apple would do our best to protect that key, but in a world where all of our data is under constant threat, it would be relentlessly attacked by hackers and cybercriminals."