FBI Director James Comey suggested Thursday that the bureau paid more than $1 million to access an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino attackers, the first time the agency has offered a possible price tag in the high-profile case.
While speaking at a security forum in London hosted by the Aspen Institute, Comey would not offer a precise dollar figure, saying only that it cost “a lot” to get into the phone.
He said the cost of the tool was “more than I will make in the remainder of this job, which is seven years and four months, for sure.” As he made his remark, Comey, a former federal prosecutor who speaks precisely in public settings, paused as if to consider the math he was performing in his head.
The FBI director serves a 10-year term, though Comey’s predecessor, Robert S. Mueller III, served for 12 years after Congress approved a request from President Obama to extend his tenure.
Comey was confirmed July 2013 and took office in September of that year, so he has more than seven years left in his term. According to the federal statute detailing his salary, Comey is paid the rate set for Level II of the executive salary schedule. That means he makes $185,100 a year, under the pay schedules that went into effect this year.
As a result, Comey’s remarks strongly implied that the bureau paid at least $1.3 million to get onto the phone, which had belonged to Syed Rizwan Farook, who, with his wife, killed 14 people during the Dec. 2 terror attack in San Bernardino, Calif.
“But it was, in my view, worth it,” the FBI director said of what it cost to access the phone’s data.
An FBI spokesman said the bureau would not comment on Comey’s remarks.
Federal authorities have not publicly revealed who helped the FBI unlock the San Bernardino iPhone, which was at the center of an extended fight between the government and Apple. The Justice Department had maintained that only Apple could help it access the phone without erasing all of its data before abruptly saying it had gotten help from an outside party and no longer needed Apple’s assistance.
According to people familiar with the issue, the FBI cracked the phone with the help of professional hackers who were paid a one-time flat fee. Law enforcement officials have said recently that the FBI has found no links to foreign terrorists on the phone, though they are still hoping that geolocation data on the device could help reveal what the attackers did during an 18-minute period after the shooting.
Earlier this month, Comey had said that the government was considering telling Apple how it accessed the phone, though he acknowledged that if that happened, the technology giant would fix the flaw and close off that avenue. But he said the tool would only work on a “narrow slice” of devices, saying he was “pretty confident” it would not work on newer models.
Comey conceded Thursday that the tool would work only on an iPhone 5c running iOS 9. In part because of the price tag, Comey said he hoped the government could figure out a solution to access other, more current phones without having to make mass appeals to the tech industry for some kind of hack.
He noted that there were 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. that might want to access phones and could not afford what the FBI paid to access the San Bernardino phone. The FBI’s total budget for fiscal year 2016 was more than $8.7 billion, and the bureau requested more than $9.5 billion for fiscal year 2017.
“I’m hoping that we can somehow get to a place where we have a sensible solution, or set of solutions, that doesn’t involve hacking, it doesn’t involve spending tons of money in a way that’s un-scaleable,” Comey said.