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FBI, NSA use 'gray market' companies to help unlock phones: report

FBI, NSA use 'gray market' companies to help unlock phones: report
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The FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA) have utilized the "gray market" in order to aid in unlocking phones, according to a report from Slate.

The outlet reports that the FBI spent $1.3 million to pay a gray market company to unlock an iPhone used by Syed Farook in the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. The gray market is a marketplace where hacking services are offered to government and corporate clients.

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The NSA also reportedly purchased exploits from a France-based gray market company known as Vupen. 

The company closed in 2015 and reopened under the name Zerodium. 

The agency budgeted for $25.1 million to buy zero-days service, which involves leveraging unknown weaknesses in devices, in 2013, according to Slate. 

The use of the gray market by government agencies permits the agencies to bypass the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, which involves the government deciding whether to flag zero-day vulnerabilities to tech companies or keep them under wraps. 

The report comes as tensions rise between tech companies and the federal government over the issue of accessing encrypted information. 

FBI Special Agent Christopher Combs revealed late last year that the bureau confiscated the phone of the gunman who opened fire at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, but was unable to access it amid the ongoing investigation. 

“It actually highlights an issue that you’ve all heard about before with advance of the phones and the technology and the encryption, law enforcement, whether it’s at the state, local or the federal level, is increasingly not able to get into these phones,” Combs said.