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The FBI's iPhone unlocking tool has some serious limitations

April 7, 2016

Ever since the iPhone 5c used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook was hacked open by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, there’s been a bit of hysteria. Concerns have run rampant that this tool could be used to hack into just about any iPhone, but it turns out those worries are mostly unjustified. Speaking at Ohio’s Kenyon College, FBI director James Coomey pointed out that the tool purchased for unlocking the iPhone is quite limited in what it can do.

The FBI is talking about the tool, but not with Apple

This doesn’t work on a 6s, doesn’t work in a 5s, and so we have a tool that works on a narrow slice of phones.

- FBI Director James Coomey

During a question and answer session at Kenyon College, Coomey pointed out that the tool purchased for this case, and others, only works on a “narrow slice of phones.” Specifically, the hack will only succeed in unlocking an iPhone 5c running iOS 9. That’s a pretty limited number of devices.

To put it in perspective, research firm Consumer Intelligence Research Partners said that there were a total of 110 million iPhones being used in the U.S. at the end of December 2015. More than 80 million of those devices were iPhone 6 or iPhone 6s models, and the iPhone 5c only accounted for less than 10 million units at the end of December 2015.

With the recent release of the iPhone SE, those numbers are going to shrink even further. The iPhone 5c was never a hit to begin with, and now it’s slowly but surely fading into obsolescence. If the FBI opts not to tell Apple how it unlocked the device, that might not be such a terrible thing, after all.