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NSA reveals why it couldn’t hack the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone 5c

iPhone Hacking

One of the more surprising aspects regarding the locked iPhone 5c involved in the San Bernardino terrorist attack of 2015 was that the FBI was unable to unlock the device by themselves. What’s more, we would later find out that even the NSA — who the FBI asked for assistance — lacked the requisite tools to unlock the device, a somewhat startling fact given all we know about the NSA’s activities and expertise.

Speaking at a conference on military technology this past Friday, NSA deputy director Richard Ledgett addressed the topic and explained why the NSA was unable to access Syed Farook’s iPhone 5c. And as it turns out, it’s not necessarily that the task was beyond the NSA’s capabilities. Rather, the iPhone 5c wasn’t a sufficiently popular device that would have warranted the NSA’s attention in the first place. In other words, the iPhone 5c was never on the NSA’s radar because the people it had an interest in tracking and spying on were using other devices.

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In remarks relayed by The Intercept, Ledgett explained that the NSA only works on exploits for certain devices.

“We don’t do every phone, every variation of phone,” Ledgett said. “If we don’t have a bad guy who’s using it, we don’t do that.”

With limited resources, the NSA understandably has to focus on just a few devices. Indeed, developing exploits for every smartphone and variation of a mobile OS  that hits the market would be nothing short of a waste of time. Consequently, the NSA’s deputy director said that the agency prioritizes the devices that “bad guys” use as opposed to blindly developing attack vectors for whatever device happens to be popular amongst mainstream users.

And for the record, the iPhone 5c wasn’t really popular with anyone. Even Tim Cook at one point conceded that the device never sold as well as Apple initially thought it would.

The NSA’s abilities aside, the FBI ultimately managed to access the terrorist’s locked iPhone by purchasing a hack from an unidentified third-party.

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large for over 15 years. A life long Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW. When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.