In a recent announcement, Apple stated that they no longer unlock iOS (8) devices for law enforcement.
“On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes, and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode. Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.”
This is a significantly pro-privacy (and courageous) posture Apple is taking with their devices, and while about seven years late, is more than welcome. In fact, I am very impressed with Apple’s latest efforts to beef up security all around, including iOS 8 and iCloud’s new 2FA. I believe Tim Cook to be genuine in his commitment to user privacy; perhaps I’m one of the few who can see just how gutsy this move with iOS 8 is.
It’s important to take a minute, however, to note that this does not mean that the police can’t get to your data. What Apple has done here is create for themselves plausible deniability in what they will do for law enforcement. If we take this statement at face value, what has likely happened in iOS 8 is that photos, messages, and other sensitive data, which was previously only encrypted with hardware-based keys, is now being encrypted with keys derived from a PIN or passcode. No doubt this does improve security for everyone, by marrying encryption to the PIN (something they ought to have been doing all along). While it’s technically possible to brute force a PIN code, that doesn’t mean it’s technically feasible, and thus lets Apple off the hook in terms of legal obligation. Add a complex passcode into the mix, and it gets even uglier, having to choose any of a number of dictionary style attacks to get into your encrypted data. By redesigning the file system in this fashion (if this is the case), Apple has afforded themselves the ability to say, “the phone’s data is encrypted with a PIN or passphrase, and so we’re not legally required to hack it for you guys, so go pound sand”. I am quite impressed, Mr. Cook! That took courage… but it does not mean that your data is beyond law enforcement’s reach.