Day: September 25, 2014

The Politics Behind iPhone Encryption and the FBI

Apple’s new policy about law enforcement is ruffling some feathers with FBI, and has been a point of debate among the rest of us. It has become such because it’s been viewed as just that – a policy – rather than what it really is, which is a design change. With iOS 8, Apple has finally brought their operating system up to what most experts would consider “acceptable security”. My tone here suggests that I’m saying all prior versions of iOS had substandard security – that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’ve been hacking on the phone since they first came out in 2007. Since the iPhone first came out, Apple’s data security has had a dismal track record. Even as recent as iOS 7, Apple’s file system left almost all user data inadequately encrypted (or protected), and often riddled with holes – or even services that dished up your data to anyone who knew how to ask. Today, what you see happening with iOS 8 is a major improvement in security, by employing proper encryption to protect data at rest. Encryption, unlike people, knows no politics. It knows no policy. It doesn’t care if you’re law enforcement, or a criminal. Encryption, when implemented properly, is indiscriminate about who it’s protecting your data from. It just protects it. That is key to security.

Up until iOS 8, Apple’s encryption didn’t adequately protect users because it wasn’t designed properly (in my expert opinion). Apple relied, instead, on the operating system to protect user data, and that allowed law enforcement to force Apple to dump what amounted to almost all of the user data from any device – because it was technically feasible, and there was nobody to stop them from doing it. From iOS 7 and back, the user data stored on the iPhone was not encrypted with a key that was derived from the user’s passcode. Instead, it was protected with a key derived from the device’s hardware… which is as good as having no key at all. Once you booted up any device running iOS 7 or older, much of that user data could be immediately decrypted in memory, allowing Apple to dump it and provide a tidy disk image to the police. Incidentally, it also allowed a number of hackers (including criminals) to read it.

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