Apple reportedly wants to take itself out of the equation when it comes to decrypting data on a criminal suspect’s iOS device. Company engineers are working on a solution that would make it impossible for Apple to help law enforcement break into an iPhone and gain access to the encrypted data contained within, according to The New York Times.
The report is yet another storyline to come out of the continuing saga of Apple’s battle with the Federal Bureau of Investigation over the iPhone 5c used by San Bernardino, California shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. That iPhone, running iOS 9, is locked with a passcode and thus all data on the phone is encrypted until the device is unlocked with the proper password.
The FBI believes the phone contains information relevant to its investigation of the San Bernardino attack in December. Thus the law enforcement agency wants Apple to create a special version of iOS that could be used to unlock the iPhone. The important difference with the special version of iOS is that it would let a computer take unlimited guesses at the handset’s four-digit passcode, known as a brute force attack.
Typically, iOS doesn’t allow rapid brute force guessing of passcodes. There’s also an added security feature users can activate that automatically erases data on an iPhone after 10 unsuccessful attempts at cracking the passcode. It’s not clear if the data erasure feature is enabled on the iPhone used by Farook.
Creating a special version of iOS is only half the problem, however. The reason Apple could technically create this version of iOS and use it on the iPhone 5c is thanks to the phone’s troubleshooting system, according to The Times.
This system allows Apple to install a new version of iOS onto a phone without a passcode—a convenience feature created in case a malfunctioning iPhone needs to be reset. That opening is at the heart of how the FBI wants Apple to get a special version of iOS to interact with the iPhone 5c in question and allow the brute force password cracking.
For its part, Apple doesn’t want to create the special version of iOS saying the technique used in the San Bernardino case could be used “over and over again, on any number of devices”—at least for now. The Times says Apple is working hard to close the troubleshooting loophole, making it impossible for Apple to comply with future orders to unlock iPhones. That change couldn’t come sooner for Apple, as apparently the company is already fighting at least a dozen requests similar to the San Bernardino case.
Why this matters: There’s no doubt that if Apple was ultimately forced to help unlock the phone the hack would be effective. Noted iPhone jailbreak developer Will Strafach (also known as Chronic on Twitter) recently wrote an opinion piece for BGR where he says a four-digit passcode on an iPhone could be cracked in under an hour. Apple’s current efforts to close the troubleshooting system workaround wouldn’t affect the San Bernardino case but it could potentially save Apple from dealing with a similar legal fight again.