A twist has emerged in the F.B.I. phone-hacking debacle: the agency’s director James Comey said on Thursday that the F.B.I. “paid more to get into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters than he will make in the remaining seven years and four months he has in his job,” writes Reuters. And with information about Comey’s annual salary as of January 2015 ($183,300), reports estimate that he will make $1.34 million over that period of time. The fact that the F.B.I. paid over that sum for the hacking of the phone — which hasn’t produced much in the way of evidence that elevates national security — sets a troubling precedent.
Naturally, the F.B.I. isn’t relaying too many details of what it has learned from Syed Farook’s phone, but so far reports note that no evidence of contact with ISIS was on the device.
Only yesterday Congress heard comments from Amy Hess, the F.B.I.’s executive assistant director for science and technology, on how the F.B.I. does not have adequate tools or expertise to access information on certain encrypted devices. This point has opened the floodgates for debate on whether or not government agencies should work with private third parties to aid in criminal investigations, as Blouin News covered this week. But the sum that the F.B.I. paid to unlock the San Bernardino phone elevates the complexity of this question because it involves a hefty amount of tax payer money, and proved relatively fruitless.
With these facts, another aspect of the debate arises because introducing a working partnership between third parties in Silicon Valley and agencies like the F.B.I. could potentially reduce such high costs of obtaining sensitive information. Of course, other touchy subjects have to be addressed first, such as, how to ensure the security of classified information should third parties have access to it, and what the ethical standards are in any case for cracking into user devices.
If anything, the enormous sum the agency paid for little to no information heightens the controversial elements of this debate.