FBI paid sketchy hackers to break into San Bernardino shooter's iPhone

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After hinting that it maybe didn't need Apple's help after all, last month the FBI managed to break into the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook and mine it for as-yet-unreleased data. The FBI has so far refused to reveal its secret method (although it has offered its phone-hacking services to local law enforcement), but a source "familiar with the matter" told the Washington Post that the bureau paid a team of professional hackers a one-time fee to work its magic.

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According to the Post, the hackers approached the FBI with knowledge of at least one previously unknown flaw in the iPhone's software. The information was used to create a mysterious piece of hardware, which allowed officials to crack the phone's four-digit password without setting off a security feature that would've erased all its data.

Guessing the PIN, said the FBI, would've taken about 26 minutes — the hard part was making sure the phone didn't wipe itself due to repeated erroneous attempts.

RELATED: Inside the San Bernardino shooting suspects home:

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FBI paid sketchy hackers to break into San Bernardino shooter's iPhone
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: Inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly the recent mass shootings, lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A Quran sits in the living room inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: An identification card for Syed Farook inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A hole in the ceiling could be seen inside the closet area of the rear bedroom inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A baby crib is seen inside the baby room of the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings, lived, on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A firearm lubricant could be seen in the closet of the front bedroom inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: Media reporters go in and out of the townhouse where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A praying mat and a cleared out closet in the baby room in the front of the apartment. A rare first glimpse inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly the recent mass shootings, lived, on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: Prayer beads are seen laying on the bed alongside personal documents in the rear bedroom inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A closet inside the baby room. A rare first glimpse inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings, lived, on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A rare first glimpse inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings, lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A book sits on a table inside the home of San Bernardino mass murder suspect Syed Farook, December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Journalists squeeze into a child's bedroom in the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A view of the kitchen inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A television crew prepares to do a live report inside a child's bedroom in the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN BERNARDINO, CA - DECEMBER 04: Reporters take pictures of photographs found inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: Baby food sits on a kitchen counter inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: A hatchet sits in a kitchen drawer inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: Reporters inspect the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: Arabic books sit in a closet inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: An Islamic Manners book sits in a bedroom inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: A book about prayer sits on a bedside table inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN BERNARDINO, CA - DECEMBER 04: Reporters inspect the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: Reporters inspect the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: Reporters inspect the home of Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Members of the media crowd into the apartment bedroom of San Bernardino shooting suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, in Redlands, Calif., Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after the building landlord invited journalists into the townhouse. A book containing passages from the Quran is seen at right. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Members of the media crowd into a child's room in an apartment in Redlands, Calif., shared by San Bernardino shooting rampage suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after the building landlord invited media into the townhouse rented by the California attackers. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Members of the media crowd into the living room of an apartment in Redlands, Calif., shared by San Bernardino shooting rampage suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after the building landlord invited media into the townhouse rented by the California attackers. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Members of the media crowd into the living room of an apartment in Redlands, Calif., shared by San Bernardino shooting rampage suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after the building landlord invited media into the townhouse rented by the California attackers. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Members of the media crowd into a child's room in an apartment in Redlands, Calif., shared by San Bernardino shooting rampage suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after the building landlord invited media into the townhouse rented by the California attackers. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
A member of the media films a wall tapestry displaying religous writing in the living room of an apartment in Redlands, Calif., shared by San Bernardino shooting rampage suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after the building landlord invited media into the townhouse rented by the California attackers. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
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The hackers responsible for the job (which were not from the Israeli firm Cellebrite, as had been previously reported) "keep a low profile" and are known for identifying vulnerabilities in software for the purpose of selling the information to developers and, in some cases, the U.S. government. The FBI paid them a one-time flat fee.

Now, the FBI must decide whether to share its knowledge of the software flaw with Apple. Director James Comey has said the hack only works on an iPhone 5Cs running the iOS 9 operating system, so it has limited application, and he's also expressed concern that if Apple fixes the flaw the bureau would be "back where [it] started from." Apple has said it won't sue to discover the flaw — a statement which, given this whole mess, can be considered taking the high road.

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