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Phone Crackers

State Department Seemingly Buys $15,000 iPhone Cracking Tech GrayKey

As the FBI pushes once again for backdoors in consumer encryption products, the State Department is apparently taking advantage of a $50 per iPhone unlocking product from Grayshift, a company with an ex-Apple engineer on its staff.

Joseph Cox

Joseph Cox

Image: Malwarebytes

This is part of an ongoing Motherboard series on the proliferation of phone cracking technology, the people behind it, and who is buying it. Follow along here.

Grayshift, a company that offers to unlock modern iPhones for as little as $50 each, has caused a buzz across law enforcement agencies, with local police already putting down cash for the much sought-after tech. Now, it appears a section of the US State Department has also purchased the iPhone cracking tool, judging by procurement records reviewed by Motherboard.

The news comes as The New York Times reports that the Justice Department and FBI have renewed their efforts to force tech companies to implement encryption backdoors into consumer products, meaning authorities could more reliably gain access to devices.

Grayshift’s iPhone product, dubbed GrayKey, can unlock devices running versions of Apple’s latest mobile operating system iOS 11, according to marketing material obtained by Forbes . An online version of GrayKey which allows 300 unlocks costs $15,000 (which boils down to $50 per device), and an offline capability with unlimited uses is $30,000. According to a recent post from cybersecurity firm Malwarebytes, which obtained leaked details on GrayKey, the product itself is a small, four inch by four inch box, and two iPhones can be connected at once via lightning cables. Malwarebytes adds that the time it takes to unlock a device varies depending on the strength of the user’s passcode: it may be hours or days. Notably, Grayshift includes an ex-Apple engineer on its staff, Forbes reported.

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On March 6, the State Department ordered an item from Grayshift for just over $15,000, according to a purchase order listing available on the US government’s public federal procurement data system. The listing is sparse on details, putting the order under the generic label of “computer and computer peripheral equipment.” But Motherboard confirmed that the Grayshift in the State Department listing is the same as the one selling iPhone cracking tech: the phone number of the vendor in both the purchase order and documents Motherboard previously obtained detailing a GrayKey purchase by Indiana State Police is the same.

The “funding office” for the Grayshift purchase was the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, according to the procurement records. The Bureau acts as the law enforcement and security arm of the State Department, bearing “the core responsibility for providing a safe environment for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy,” the State Department website reads.

Caption: A screenshot of the purchase order included in public procurement records.

A State Department official told Motherboard that Diplomatic Security's Digital Forensics Lab, which is part of the Computer Investigations and Analysis Division (CIAD), handles digital evidence as part of criminal investigations. CIAD uses a number of forensic tools in line with federal law and Department regulations, the official added.

Grayshift is likely posing stiff competition to much more established firms in this space. According to emails previously published by Motherboard, a similar iPhone unlocking product offered by popular mobile forensics firm Cellebrite costs $200,000, or $5,000 per device according to Malwarebytes, clearly a sizeable, and perhaps unaffordable price hike compared to Grayshift’s offering.

Update: This piece has been updated to include additional comment from a State Department official.