Open Letter to the Law Enforcement Community

To my friends in law enforcement, and many whom I don’t know serving our country:

First, thank you. You do an incredibly difficult job that often goes unseen, and you put your life at risk to make this great country safer. For that, I am deeply grateful.

Many of you have suddenly found yourselves on the wrong side of history. Our country has what, by many appearances, seems to be an illegitimate president who may be the product of the Russian intelligence community, and possibly even the head of the FBI, both of whom played a role in defrauding or manipulating our election system. Within one week of taking office, Trump has shown himself a madman who uses racism and personal prejudice to fill in the gaps that his incompetence affords. Seemingly overnight, our country has been transformed from what many had considered a free country struggling to overcome their indifferences, now into a place of fear for basic human rights. Racist extremist minority groups, deeply rooted in our country, have suddenly become empowered to hate, igniting hostility against anyone who is different from the majority in skin tone, religion, or sexual orientation.

With the stroke of a pen, livelihoods and families have been discarded by the government, as many who have lived legally in our country for years now have had to fight against illegal deportation orders, or have been banned from re-entering the country they call home. These men, women, and children are considered among enemies of the state not for committing a crime, but for merely existing. Meanwhile, science, technology, and even the arts are being harmed through this disgraceful practice, as many of these human beings are scientists, engineers, movie directors, and other productive human beings working for large technology innovators, defense contractors, or even in Hollywood. All of them went through several layers of vetting far beyond what the president has ever been subject to, just to be in this country and get the jobs they have. We’re in very troubling times – times that frighten everyone, except those in power.

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On NCCIC/FBI Joint Report JAR-16-20296

Social media is ripe with analysis of an FBI joint report on Russian malicious cyber activity, and whether or not it provides sufficient evidence to tie Russia to election hacking. What most people are missing is that the JAR was not intended as a presentation of evidence, but rather a statement about the Russian compromises, followed by a detailed scavenger hunt for administrators to identify the possibility of a compromise on their systems. The data included indicators of compromise, not the evidentiary artifacts that tie Russia to the DNC hack.

One thing that’s been made clear by recent statements by James Clapper and Admiral Rogers is that they don’t know how deep inside American computing infrastructure Russia has been able to get a foothold. Rogers cited his biggest fear as the possibility of Russian interference by injection of false data into existing computer systems. Imagine the financial systems that drive the stock market, criminal databases, driver’s license databases, and other infrastructure being subject to malicious records injection (or deletion) by a nation state. The FBI is clearly scared that Russia has penetrated more systems than we know about, and has put out pages of information to help admins go on the equivalent of a bug bounty.

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San Bernardino: Behind the Scenes

I wasn’t originally going to dig into some of the ugly details about San Bernardino, but with FBI Director Comey’s latest actions to publicly embarrass Hillary Clinton (who I don’t support), or to possibly tip the election towards Donald Trump (who I also don’t support), I am getting to learn more about James Comey and from what I’ve learned, a pattern of pushing a private agenda seems to be emerging. This is relevant because the San Bernardino iPhone matter saw numerous accusations of pushing a private agenda by Comey as well; that it was a power grab for the bureau and an attempt to get a court precedent to force private business to backdoor encryption, while lying to the public and possibly misleading the courts under the guise of terrorism.

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Moving Semi-Auto Rifles Into the National Firearms Act

I’m a long time responsible gun owner and enthusiast who, like many, would like to see more controls on semi-automatic weapons; particularly, what many refer to as “assault rifles”. Indeed, I’m well aware of all the Kool-Aid on both sides surrounding assault weapons, and I think both sides have some ridiculous notions about them. The extreme left seems to have developed an irrational fear and hatred of all guns and the right believes the only solution to guns are more guns. I used to drink the gun rights Kool-Aid. I’ve shot and smithed guns for over 15 years now, gotten the NRA certifications to supervise ranges and to carry concealed weapons, and have been an avid long range shooter. Up until a few years ago, when I sold the rights to it, I produced the #1 ballistics computer in the App Store, and made a very comfortable revenue off of the gun community with just a few hours a month of coding.

I’ve spent over 15 years in the gun community, listened to all of the political arguments surrounding “assault weapons”, and have met some intelligent people. I’ve met more wildly ignorant people, who don’t even know how their AR-15s work let alone have any sense of the world. The political dogma surrounding assault weapons is downright embarrassing on the gun rights side. If we really believe that guns are keeping the government in check, then they’ve quite failed at that task. If guns supposedly make for a more peaceful society, then why is our country’s gun violence worse than most third world countries, and why are virtually all other first world countries statistically safer on a high order of magnitude? Perhaps if more gun owners traveled and saw how other societies lived – many without the distrust and predisposition to violence that we hold even towards our own neighbors – they might see how sorely mistaken their mindset has been all this time. Instead, many choose to live ignorantly believing that the rest of the world is as vicious and violent as many are in the US. It’s simply not true.

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WSJ Describes Reckless Behavior by FBI in Terrorism Case

The Wall Street Journal published an article today citing a source at the FBI is planning to tell the White House that “it knows so little about the hacking tool that was used to open terrorist’s iPhone that it doesn’t make sense to launch an internal government review”. If true, this should be taken as an act of recklessness by the FBI with regards to the Syed Farook case: The FBI apparently allowed an undocumented tool to run on a piece of high profile, terrorism-related evidence without having adequate knowledge of the specific function or the forensic soundness of the tool.

Best practices in forensic science would dictate that any type of forensics instrument needs to be tested and validated. It must be accepted as forensically sound before it can be put to live evidence. Such a tool must yield predictable, repeatable results and an examiner must be able to explain its process in a court of law. Our court system expects this, and allows for tools (and examiners) to face numerous challenges based on the credibility of the tool, which can only be determined by a rigorous analysis. The FBI’s admission that they have such little knowledge about how the tool works is an admission of failure to evaluate the science behind the tool; it’s core functionality to have been evaluated in any meaningful way. Knowing how the tool managed to get into the device should be the bare minimum I would expect anyone to know before shelling out over a million dollars for a solution, especially one that was going to be used on high-profile evidence.

A tool should not make changes to a device, and any changes should be documented and repeatable. There are several other variables to consider in such an effort, especially when imaging an iOS device. Apart from changes made directly by the tool (such as overwriting unallocated space, or portions of the file system journal), simply unlocking the device can cause the operating system to make a number of changes, start background tasks which could lead to destruction of data, or cause other changes unintentionally. Without knowing how the tool works, or what portions of the operating system it affects, what vulnerabilities are exploited, what the payload looks like, where the payload is written, what parts of the operating system are disabled by the tool, or a host of other important things – there is no way to effectively measure whether or not the tool is forensically sound. Simply running it against a dozen other devices to “see if it works” is not sufficient to evaluate a forensics tool – especially one that originated from a grey hat hacking group, potentially with very little actual in-house forensics expertise.

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Open Letter to Congress on Encryption Backdoors

To the Honorable Congress of the United States of America,

I am a proud American who has had the pleasure of working with the law enforcement community for the past eight years. As an independent researcher, I have assisted on numerous local, state, and federal cases and trained many of our federal and military agencies in digital forensics (including breaking numerous encryption implementations). Early on, there was a time when my skill set was exclusively unique, and I provided assistance at no charge to many agencies flying agents out to my small town for help, or meeting with detectives while on vacation. I have developed an enormous respect for the people keeping our country safe, and continue to help anyone who asks in any way that I can.

With that said, I have seen a dramatic shift in the core competency of law enforcement over the past several years. While there are many incredibly bright detectives and agents working to protect us, I have also seen an uncomfortable number who have regressed to a state of “push button forensics”, often referred to in law enforcement circles as “push and drool forensics”; that is, rather than using the skills they were trained with to investigate and solve cases, many have developed an unhealthy dependence on forensics tools, which have the ability to produce the “smoking gun” for them, literally with the touch of a button. As a result, I have seen many open-and-shut cases that have had only the most abbreviated of investigations, where much of the evidence was largely ignored for the sake of these “smoking guns” – including much of the evidence on the mobile device, which often times conflicted with the core evidence used.

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The Dangers of the Burr Encryption Bill

The Burr Encryption Bill – Discussion Draft dropped last night, and proposes legislation to weaken encryption standards for all United States citizens and corporations. The bill itself is a hodgepodge of technical ineptitude combined with pockets of contradiction. I would cite the most dangerous parts of the bill, but the bill in its entirety is dangerous, not just for its intended uses but also for all of the uses that aren’t immediately apparent to the public.

The bill, in short, requires that anyone who develops features or methods to encrypt data must also decrypt the data under a court order. This applies not only to large companies like Apple, but could be used to punish developers of open source encryption tools, or even encryption experts who invent new methods of encryption. Its broad wording allows the government to hold virtually anyone responsible for what a user might do with encryption. A good parallel to this would be holding a vehicle manufacturer responsible for a customer that drives into a crowd. Only it’s much worse: The proposed legislation would allow the tire manufacturer, as well as the scientists who invented the tires, to be held liable as well.

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FBI Breaks Into San Bernardino iPhone

As expected, the FBI has succeeded in finding a method to recover the data on the San Bernardino iPhone, and now the government can see all of the cat pictures Farook was keeping on it. We don’t know what method was used, as it’s been classified. Given the time frame and the details of the case, it’s possible it could have been the hardware method (NAND mirroring) or a software method (exploitation). Many have speculated on both sides, but your guess is as good as mine. What I can tell you are the implications.

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My Take on FBI’s “Alternative” Method

FBI acknowledged today that there “appears” to be an alternative way into Farook’s iPhone 5c – something that experts have been shouting for weeks now; in fact, we’ve been saying there are several viable methods. Before I get into which method I think is being used here, here are some possibilities of other viable methods and why I don’t think they’re part of the solution being utilized:

  1. A destructive method, such as de-capping or deconstruction of the microprocessor would preclude FBI from being able to come back in two weeks to continue proceedings against Apple. Once the phone is destroyed, there’s very little Apple can do with it. Apple cannot repair a destroyed processor without losing the UID key in the process. De-capping, acid and lasers, and other similar techniques are likely out.
  2. We know the FBI hasn’t been reaching out to independent researchers, and so this likely isn’t some fly-by-night jailbreak exploit out of left field. If respected security researchers can’t talk to FBI, there’s no way a jailbreak crew is going to be allowed to either.
  3. An NSA 0-day is likely also out, as the court briefs suggested the technique came from outside USG.
  4. While it is possible that an outside firm has developed an exploit payload using a zero-day, or one of the dozens of code execution vulnerabilities published by Apple in patch releases, this likely wouldn’t take two weeks to verify, and the FBI wouldn’t stop a full court press (literally) against Apple unless the technique had been reported to have worked. A few test devices running the same firmware could easily determine such an attack would work, within perhaps hours. A software exploit would also be electronically transmittable, something that an outside firm could literally email to the FBI. Even if that two weeks accounted for travel, you still don’t need anywhere near this amount of time to demonstrate an exploit. It’s possible the two weeks could be for meetings, red tape, negotiating price, and so on, but the brief suggested that the two weeks was for verification, and not all of the other bureaucracy that comes after.
  5. This likely has nothing to do with getting intel about the passcode or reviewing security camera footage to find Farook typing it in at a cafe; the FBI is uncertain about the method being used and needs to verify it. They wouldn’t go through this process if they believed they already had the passcode in their possession, unless it was for fasting and prayer to hope it worked.
  6. Breaking the file system encryption on one of NSA/CIAs computing clusters is unlikely; that kind of brute forcing doesn’t give you a two week heads-up that it’s “almost there”. It can also take significantly longer – possibly years – to crack.
  7. Experimental techniques such as frankensteining the crypto engine or other potentially niche edge techniques would take much longer than two weeks (or even two months) to develop and test, and would likely also be destructive.

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Apple vs. FBI: Where We Are Now, and Where We’re Going

Much has happened since a California magistrate court originally granted an order for Apple to assist the FBI under the All Writs Act. For one, most of us now know what the All Writs Act is: An ancient law that was passed before the Fourth Amendment even existed, now somehow relevant to modern technology a few hundred years later. Use of this act has exploded into a legal argument about whether or not it grants carte blanche rights of the government to demand anything and everything from private companies (and incidentally, individuals) if it helps them prosecute crimes. Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve seen strong debates about whether any person should be allowed to have private conversations, thoughts, or ideas that can’t later be searched, whether forcing others to work for the government violates the constitution, whether other countries will line up to exploit technology if America does, and ultimately – at the heart of all of these – whether fear of the word “terrorism” is enough to cause us all to burn our constitution.

Over the past few weeks, the entire tech community has gotten behind Apple, filing a barrage of friend-of-the-court briefs on Apple’s behalf. Security experts such as myself, Crypto “Rock Stars”, constitutionalists, technologists, lawyers, and 30 Helens all agree that Apple is in the right, and that backdooring iOS would cause irreparable damage to the security, privacy, and safety of hundreds of millions of diplomats, judges, doctors, CEOs, teenage girls, victims of crimes, parents, celebrities, politicians, and all men and women around the world. Throughout the past month, legal exchanges have escalated from ice cold to white hot, and from professional to a traveling flea circus as ridiculous terms such as “lying dormant cyber pathogen” have been introduced. Congress, the courts, and the public have seen strong technical and legal arguments, impassioned pleas from victims, attempts at reason by the law enforcement community, name calling, proverbial mugs-thrown-across-the-room, uncontrollable profanity on media briefings, and just about any other form of pressure manifesting itself that one can imagine.

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A Bomb on a Leash

The idea of a controlled explosion comes to mind when I think about pending proceedings with Apple. The Department of Justice argues that a backdoored version of iOS can be controlled in that Apple’s existing security mechanisms can prevent it from blowing up any device other than Farook’s. This is quite true. The code signing and TSS signing mechanism used to install firmware have controls that can most certainly bind a firmware bundle to a given device UDID. What’s not true is the amount of real control and protection this provides.

Think of Apple’s signing mechanisms as a kind of “leash” if you will; they provide a means of digital rights management to control any payload delivered onto the device. Where the DOJ’s argument falls into error is that their focus is too much on this leash, and too little on the payload itself. The payload in this scenario is a modified version of iOS that has a direct line into a device’s security mechanisms to both disable them and manipulate them to rapidly brute force a passcode (remotely, mind you). It’s the electronic equivalent of an explosive for an iPhone that will blow the safe open (FBI’s analogy, not mine). What Apple is being forced to design, develop, test, validate, and protect is essentially a bomb on a leash.

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Apple Should Own The Term “Warrant Proof”

The Department of Justice, in a March 10 filing, accused Apple of outrightly making “warrant proof” devices, and accused Apple of obstruction of justice by making these devices so secure that they could not be searched, even with a warrant. While these words belonged to DOJ, I think Apple should own them. If you study our state laws, federal laws, and international treaties, you’ll see many examples of intellectual property that actually are protected against warrants. Yes, there are things in this country that are deemed warrant proof.

As per The State Department, Article 27.3 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states, a diplomatic pouch “shall not be opened or detained”. In other words, it’s warrant proof. No law enforcement agency in our country is permitted – under international treaty – to open a diplomatic pouch, and any warrants issued are null and void. Guidelines even permit for unaccompanied diplomatic pouches that are traveling without a diplomat or courier, which even further emphasizes the impetus for security of such pouches: they should have locks, and strong ones at that. Do we still have spying? Absolutely, and it’s illegal. It is not only reasonable then, but important to have a device like the iPhone – secure against illegal search and seizure.

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An Example of “Warrant-Friendly Security”

The encryption on the iPhone is clearly doing its job. Good encryption doesn’t discriminate between attackers, it simply protects data – that’s its job, and it’s frustrating both criminals and law enforcement. The government has recently made arguments insisting that we must find a “balance” between protecting your privacy and providing a method for law enforcement to procure evidence with a warrant. If we don’t, the Department of Justice and the President himself have made it clear that such privacy could easily be legislated out of our products. Some think having a law enforcement backdoor is a good idea. Here, I present an example of what “warrant friendly” security looks like. It already exists. Apple has been using it for some time. It’s integrated into iCloud’s design.

Unlike the desktop backups that your iPhone makes, which can be encrypted with a backup password, the backups sent to iCloud are not encrypted this way. They are absolutely encrypted, but differently, in a way that allows Apple to provide iCloud data to law enforcement with a subpoena.  Apple had advertised iCloud as “encrypted” (which is true) and secure. It still does advertise this today, in fact, the same way it has for the past few years:

“Apple takes data security and the privacy of your personal information very seriously. iCloud is built with industry-standard security practices and employs strict policies to protect your data.”

So with all of this security, it sure sounds like your iCloud data should be secure, and also warrant friendly – on the surface, this sounds like a great “balance between privacy and security”. Then, the unthinkable happened.

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On Dormant Cyber Pathogens and Unicorns

Gary Fagan, the Chief Deputy District Attorney for San Bernardino County, filed an amicus brief to the court in defense of the FBI compelling Apple to backdoor Farook’s iPhone. In this brief, DA Michael Ramos made the outrageous statement that Farook’s phone might contain a “lying dormant cyber pathogen”, a term that doesn’t actually exist in computer science, let alone in information security.

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CIS Files Amici Curiae Brief in Apple Case

CIS sought to file a friend-of-the-court, or amici curiae,” brief in the case today. We submitted the brief on behalf of a group of experts in iPhone security and applied cryptography: Dino Dai Zovi, Charlie Miller, Bruce Schneier, Prof. Hovav Shacham, Prof. Dan Wallach, Jonathan Zdziarski, and our colleague in CIS’s Crypto Policy ProjectProf. Dan Boneh. CIS is grateful to them for offering up their expert take on the serious implications of the court’s order for the entire security ecosystem. We hope the court will listen.

Read more at https://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2016/03/cis-files-amici-curiae-brief-apple-case-behalf-iphone-security-experts-and-applied

Mistakes in the San Bernardino Case

Many sat before Congress yesterday and made their cases for and against a backdoor into the iPhone. Little was said, however, of the mistakes that led us here before Congress in the first place, and many inaccurate statements went unchallenged.

The most notable mistake the media has caught onto has been the blunder of changing the iCloud password on Farook’s account, and Comey acknowledged this mistake before Congress.

“As I understand from the experts, there was a mistake made in that 24 hours after the attack where the [San Bernardino] county at the FBI’s request took steps that made it hard—impossible—later to cause the phone to back up again to the iCloud,”

Comey’s statements appear to be consistent with court documents all suggesting that both Apple and the FBI believed the device would begin backing up to the cloud once it was connected to a known WiFi network. This essentially established that I nterference with evidence ultimately led to the destruction of the trusted relationship between the device and its iCloud account, which prevented evidence from being available. In other words, the mistake of trying to break into the safe caused the safe to lock down in a way that made it more difficult to get evidence out of it

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Shoot First, Ask Siri Later

You know the old saying, “shoot first, ask questions later”. It refers to the notion that careless law enforcement officers can often be short sighted in solving the problem at hand. It’s impossible to ask questions to a dead person, and if you need answers, that really makes it hard for you if you’ve just shot them. They’ve just blown their only chance of questioning the suspect by failing to take their training and good judgment into account. This same scenario applies to digital evidence. Many law enforcement agencies do not know how to properly handle digital evidence, and end up making mistakes that cause them to effectively kill their one shot of getting the answers they need.

In the case involving Farook’s iPhone, two things went wrong that could have resulted in evidence being lifted off the device.

First, changing the iCloud password prevented the device from being able to push an iCloud backup. As Apple’s engineers were walking FBI through the process of getting the device to start sending data again, it became apparent that the password had been changed (suggesting they may have even seen the device try to authorize on iCloud). If the backup had succeeded, there would be very little, if anything, that could have been gotten off the phone that wouldn’t be in the iCloud backup.

Secondly, and equally damaging to the evidence, was that the device was apparently either shut down or allowed to drain after it was seized. Shutting the device down is a common – but outdated – practice in field operations. Modern device seizure not only requires that the device should be kept powered up, but also to tune all of the protocols leading up to the search and seizure so that it’s done quickly enough to prevent the battery from draining before you even arrive on scene. Letting the device power down effectively shot the suspect dead by removing any chances of doing the following:

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Apple’s Burden to Protect or Perpetually Create a “Weapon”

As the Apple/FBI dispute continues on, court documents reveal the argument that Apple has been providing forensic services to law enforcement for years without tools being hacked or leaked from Apple. Quite the contrary, information is leaked out of Foxconn all the time, and in fact some of the software and hardware tools used to hack iOS products over the past several years (IP-BOX, Pangu, and so on) have originated in China, where Apple’s manufacturing process takes place. Outside of China, jailbreak after jailbreak has taken advantage of vulnerabilities in iOS, some with the help of tools leaked out of Apple’s HQ in Cupertino. Devices have continually been compromised and even today, Apple’s security response team releases dozens of fixes for vulnerabilities that have been exploited outside of Apple. Setting all of this aside for a moment, however, lets take a look at the more immediate dangers of such statements.

By affirming that Apple can and will protect such a backdoor, Comey’s statement is admitting that Apple will be faced with not only the burden of breathing this forensics backdoor into existence, but must also take perpetual steps to protect it once it’s been created. In other words, the courts are forcing Apple to create what would be considered a weapon under the latest proposed Wassenaar rules, and charging them with the burden of also preventing that weapon from getting out – either the code itself, or the weaknesses that Apple would have to continue allowing to be baked into their products to allow the weapon to work.

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On Ribbons and Ribbon Cutters

With most non-technical people struggling to make sense of the battle between FBI and Apple, Bill Gates introduced an excellent analogy to explain cryptography to the average non-geek. Gates used the analogy of encryption as a “ribbon around a hard drive”. Good encryption is more like a chastity belt, but since Farook decided to use a weak passcode, I think it’s fair here to call it a ribbon. In any case, lets go with Gates’ ribbon analogy.

Where Gates is wrong is that the courts are not ordering Apple to simply cut the ribbon. In fact, I think there would be more in the tech sector who would support Apple simply breaking the weak password that Farook chose to use if this had been the case. Apple’s encryption is virtually unbreakable when you use a strong alphanumeric passcode, and so by choosing to use a numeric pin, you get what you deserve.

Instead of cutting the ribbon, which would be a much simpler task, the courts are ordering Apple to invent a ribbon cutter – a forensic tool capable of cutting the ribbon for FBI, and is promising to use it on just this one phone. In reality, there’s already a line beginning to form behind Comey should he get his way. NY DA Cy Vance has stated that NYC has 175 iPhones waiting to be unlocked (which translates to roughly 1/10th of 1% of all crime in NYC for an entire year). Documents have also shown DOJ has over a dozen more such requests pending. If the promise of “just this one phone” were authentic, there would be no need to order Apple to make this ribbon cutter; they’d simply tell them to cut the ribbon.

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Dumpster Diving in Forensic Science

Recent speculation has been made about a plan to unlock Farook’s iPhone simply so that they can walk through the evidence right on the device, rather than to forensically image the device, which would provide no information beyond what is already in an iCloud backup. Going through the applications by hand on an iPhone is along the dumpster level of forensic science, and let me explain why.

The device in question appears to have been powered down already, which has frozen the crypto as well as a number of processes on the device. While in this state, the data is inaccessible – but at least it’s in suspended animation. At the moment, the device is incapable of connecting to a WiFi network, running background tasks, or giving third party applications access to their own data for housekeeping. This all changes once the device is unlocked. Now when a pin code is brute forced, the task is actually running from a separate copy of the operating system booted into memory. This creates a sterile environment where the tasks on the device itself don’t start, but allows a platform to break into the device. This is how my own forensics tools used to work on the iPhone, as well as some commercial solutions that later followed my design. The device can be safely brute forced without putting data at risk. Using the phone is a different story.

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