The FBI paid more than $1.3 million to unlock the San Bernardino iPhone.

The FBI Paid More Than $1.3 Million to Unlock the San Bernardino iPhone. Is That a Good Deal?

The FBI Paid More Than $1.3 Million to Unlock the San Bernardino iPhone. Is That a Good Deal?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 21 2016 6:10 PM

The FBI Paid More Than $1.3 Million to Unlock the San Bernardino iPhone. Is That a Good Deal?    

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One expensive sledgehammer.

Judith Kimbrell/Thinkstock

After spending months in court attempting to compel Apple to unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, the FBI eventually paid a third party to do it instead. The most important part of the saga is probably the ideological questions it raised about privacy and security ... but let’s be real, we’re all curious about how much the FBI spent to solve the problem.

At the Aspen Security Forum in London on Thursday, FBI director James Comey hinted at the amount, saying the bureau paid more to have the phone unlocked than he will make during the seven years and four months he has left in his 10-year term leading the bureau. Reuters estimates Comey’s remaining earning potential at the FBI is $1.34 million. Comey characterized the sum of money the bureau paid as “a lot,” but added, “It was, in my view, worth it.”

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To put that in perspective, startup Zerodium offered a $1 million bounty to anyone who could hack iOS 9; that bounty was claimed back in November. Zooming out, Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimates that the cybersecurity defense market was $75 billion in 2015 and will grow to $170 billion by 2020. And banks like J.P. Morgan Chase, Citibank, and Wells Fargo are spending hundreds of millions of dollars per year on digital security.

The enacted 2016 FBI budget is about $8.8 billion. If the bureau spent roughly $1.3 million to hack the iPhone, that would account for about 0.01 percent of its annual spending. 

Did the FBI get a good deal? CNN Money speculated in February that it would have only cost Apple $101,000 to crack the phone, but added that the company would have needed to spend millions of dollars to protect the tool it created.

Also, keep in mind that the Navy paid Microsoft $9 million last year to continue supporting Windows XP on its networks. We don’t know whether there was any worthwhile information on the San Bernardino iPhone, but the bar for justifying government tech spending seems to be pretty low. 

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.