How the FBI may have hacked into San Bernardino shooter's iPhone

NOVATO, Calif. --The FBI, along with some outside help,unlocked an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists this week.

The bureau has told local police departments that it will help them unlock cellphones in cases where it could provide evidence.

FBI mum on who helped them unlock San Bernardino terrorist's iPhone

But cracking the code is easier said than done.

When the FBI launched its search for a way to unlock Syed Farook's iPhone 5c, the technicians at a California company called Drivesavers were among those who took up the challenge. They have plenty of experience rescuing broken iPhones.

"You know, we see anywhere from a 100 to 300 iPhones a month right now," Michael Cobb, Drivesavers' director of engineering, told CBS News.

Cobb said his team can remove the chip that holds a phone's encrypted data -- but they can't just read what is on it.

"The encryption is not simple to retrieve," he said.

A company the FBI has not identified found a way around Apple's encryption. The effort at Drivesavers shows what they had to overcome. Try the wrong password too many times and the phone wipes its memory clean.

Impact of FBI cracking San Bernardino killer's iPhone

"In the case of the 5c, you only have 10 attempts before the iPhone gets erased," Cobb explained.

To make sure the chip doesn't get erased, they copy it. Then put it in a device they've created that simulates an iPhone but lets them reset the chip's password counter to zero after every ten attempts.

"It all depends on how fast you would be able to pull the data off, make that copy, do your 10 attempts," Cobb said.

Drivesavers hasn't yet defeated Apple's password protection but over the past 30 years, they have retrieved information from computers that have been burned, broken and deliberately smashed.

While law enforcement comes looking for evidence, many of Drivesavers' clients are family members trying to recover the messages and photographs of a loved one who has died -- leaving behind their phone, but not their password.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.