Apple Disables iPhone Encryption Workaround Used By Cops

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Apple said the move was not specifically aimed at frustrating law enforcement’s efforts to convict criminals

Apple has confirmed it is planning to change the software in iOS-based devices such as iPhones to make them more difficult to unlock, but said the move was not specifically aimed at deterring access by law-enforcement agencies.

Apple announced the new feature, which is set to debut in iOS 12 later this year, at its WWDC developer conference earlier this month.

It disables iOS devices’ data ports after the device has been locked for an hour. After that, the port can still be usde for charging, but the device must be unlocked for data transfers to take place.

In order to unlock mobile devices such as iPhones, law enforcement agencies often use unlocking tools that link to the device’s data port.

Loophole eliminated

While the firms that make those unlocking tools have kept their exact workings a closely guarded secret, disabling the data port entirely could prevent them from working – at least until researchers find another workaround.

Apple said the methods used by law enforcement agencies could also be used by hackers and identity thieves.

“We’re constantly strengthening the security protections in every Apple product,” the company said in a statement. “We have the greatest respect for law enforcement, and we don’t design our security improvements to frustrate their efforts to do their jobs.”

Apple and Google began encrypting the data on their mobile devices by default in 2014, amidst broader concern over mass data access by surveillance agencies such as the NSA.

In 2016, the FBI tried to force Apple to help it unlock an iPhone that had been used by a shooter in San Bernardino, California. Apple resisted, with chief executive Tim Cook saying the implications of the demand were “chilling”.

The FBI later paid an undisclosed group more than $1 million (£750,000) to help it access the phone.

‘Protecting criminal activity’

Since that time, Israel-based Cellebrite and US-based GrayShift, founded by an ex-Apple engineer, have come to supply most of the mobile phone unlocking devices and services used by law enforcement agencies.

The New York Times cited several US law enforcement officials as saying they were angered by Apple’s move.

“They are blatantly protecting criminal activity,” said Baton Rouge district attorney Hillar Moore, saying his office has paid Cellebrite to unlock phones in five cases since 2017.

In the first 10 months of last year, the Manhattan district attorney’s office said it had obtained warrants to search 702 locked smartphones, two-thirds of which were iPhones.

Apple and Google do, however, routinely give law enforcement agencies access to data held on their servers, in services such as iCloud.

Apple said that since 2013 it has worked with the US government on 55,000 requests involving information about more than 208,000 devices, accounts or financial identifiers.

The UK’s National Crime Agency recently said encrypted devices and communications services were making criminals’ jobs easier, as it makes it more difficult for law enforcement organisations to “collect intelligence and evidence”.

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