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We now know how the FBI unlocked the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone: hackers

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

We know how the FBI broke into the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone: It paid professional hackers to do it, anonymous sources told the Washington Post.

The federal government paid hackers to find a "previously unknown software flaw" in the iPhone 5Cs that would allow the FBI to access the data on Syed Farook's phone, the Post reported:

The new information was then used to create a piece of hardware that helped the FBI to crack the iPhone’s four-digit personal identification number without triggering a security feature that would have erased all the data, the individuals said.

The researchers, who typically keep a low profile, specialize in hunting for vulnerabilities in software and then in some cases selling them to the U.S. government. They were paid a one-time flat fee for the solution.

This has been a long-fought battle for the FBI, which first ordered Apple to help the agency guess Farook's passcode – almost taking the Silicon Valley tech giant to court last month. (Vox's Timothy Lee explains all of this in more detail.)

But as Vox's Timothy Lee writes, "If technology companies deliberately weaken their encryption products to accommodate the US government, they'll simultaneously make those products more vulnerable to hackers and foreign governments seeking to exploit those same weaknesses" – a case Apple has been making all along.

Apple CEO Tim Cook took a firm stance against the FBI's requests from the start. "You can’t have a backdoor that’s only for the good guys," Cook said at a Wall Street Journal Technology conference last November, warning the request would set a "dangerous precedent" for future cases.

"We built strong security into the iPhone because people carry so much personal information on our phones today, and there are new data breaches every week affecting individuals, companies and governments," Apple said in an open letter to its customers in late February. "It would be wrong to intentionally weaken our products with a government-ordered backdoor. If we lose control of our data, we put both our privacy and our safety at risk."

The request, Cook said, would spiral into many others. Sure enough, after abruptly dropping the case over Farook's iPhone 5C, the US Department of Justice has since gone to federal court in New York to order Apple to help unlock an iPhone 5S as part of a drug case.

Now, having used hackers for hire to break into the iPhone, the federal government has to decide whether it should clue Apple in on the software flaws, the Post reported.