The U.S. government’s revelation that it had accessed the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone without the help from Apple that it had so desperately sought indicates the FBI was either disguising its technical capabilities or its agents and employees remain outmatched by tech workers in the private sector, according to current and former bureau officials and legal scholars.

The bureau in recent years has launched a recruiting blitz to attract employees with cyber expertise, and the National Science Foundation has even made scholarship money available to students who study cybersecurity and later work in government. But former FBI officials said the bureau will always face an uphill battle against private firms, which can offer much more money, a less rigorous code of conduct and more opportunities to do creative work.

Ernest Hilbert, a former FBI special agent focusing on cybercrimes, said the bureau had lost tech talent in recent years. “The most an agent can make is 180K,” he said. “That’s like a starting salary in the private sector. You have a big push by private industry to pull out these individuals.”

That bureau officials were able to access Syed Rizwan Farook’s phone allows the government to avoid — at least for now — a showdown with Apple over the extent U.S. law compels the company to help in a criminal investigation.

But the high-profile fight over the San Bernardino phone also exposes that Apple’s phone has some vulnerability, further motivating it and other companies to strengthen the security of their devices and forcing the government to keep up with new security measures, technology executives and security analysts said.


FBI Director James B. Comey. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)“They’re in an arms race,” said Matthew Blaze, a cryptography researcher and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “The FBI is trying to find new ways in, and Apple is trying to find new ways to defend against that.”

In interviews, engineers across Silicon Valley said they thought the case would impact the way products are built going forward at both start-ups and large companies.

The case “will reinforce people’s arguments” for tougher encryption, said Cameron Walters, an engineer who was an early engineer at payments start-up Square. “It might push them to do it — if it was a question of ef

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