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The FBI paid over $1 million for the hack that broke the San Bernardino iPhone

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The FBI's new iPhone exploit may be more expensive than anyone suspected. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, Director Comey said the method that broke into the San Bernardino iPhone cost "more than I will make" in his remaining seven years at the FBI. Reuters calculates Comey's projected earnings over that period at $1.3 million.

Presented the day before FBI experts were due to testify in the San Bernardino case, the new method brought the San Bernardino trial to an abrupt close, ending months of legal efforts to compel Apple's help in unlocking the phone. Within a week, the method broke through the phone's lock screen protections. Earlier this week, government officials told CNN that no new leads had resulted from the information found on the phone.

A very expensive hack

The figure is only an estimate, but it's consistent with both the FBI's budget and the going rate for similar exploits. Last year, an exploit broker known as Zerodium offered $1 million for a web-based exploit against iOS 9 — a bounty that was subsequently claimed. The FBI's 2017 budget proposal allocates more than $500 million to cyber-investigative capabilities, although it's unclear how much of that money is available to contractors.

The Washington Post previously reported that the source was paid a one-time flat fee for the method, although the amount was undisclosed. The Post report also pushed back against rumors that Israeli firm Cellebrite was involved; the source of the method remains unknown. Earlier this month, director Comey told students at Kenyon College that the method wouldn't work on more advanced iPhones like the 5S, describing it as "a tool that works on a narrow slice of phones."