Feds may already have found a way to hack into Apple iPhones

Apple denied US Attorney General’s request to unlock two iPhones used by a terrorist suspect
(Image: Stockfresh)

17 January 2020

After Apple turned down a request by US Attorney General William Barr this week to unlock two iPhones used by a terrorist suspect in a recent deadly shooting, the FBI appears to already have the tools needed to access the smartphones.

Apple denied US Attorney General Barr’s request saying it would not help unlock two iPhones used by the shooter, 21-year-old Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani. He is believed to have acted alone when he shot and killed three service members and wounded several others at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida.

Alshamrani, a member of the Saudi Air Force and an aviation student at the base, was shot dead on the scene by police.




The back-and-forth between Apple and the Department of Justice is the latest scuffle involving the company’s privacy stance and government efforts to get around that it.

A search warrant, first discovered by Forbes, however, indicated the FBI already has the blackbox technology necessary to crack password-protected smart phones.

According to that warrant, FBI investigators in Ohio last year used technology from Atlanta-based Grayshift to access a locked iPhone 11 Pro Max, which belonged to Baris Ali Koch. Koch was accused of helping his brother, who had been convicted of a hate crime, to flee the country.

Atlanta-based Grayshift is one of two companies that claimed it could thwart Apple iPhone passcode security through brute-force attacks. The other is Israeli-based Cellebrite. Both companies claimed they could get around iPhone security through brute-force attacks and full file-system extraction, or a physical extraction or full file system (File-Based Encryption) extraction on many high-end Android device.

Cellebrite’s UFED Cloud Analyzer tool can purportedly unlock, decrypt and extract phone data, including “real-time mobile data… call logs, contacts, calendar, SMS, MMS, media files, apps data, chats, passwords,” according a document obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC).

Grayshift’s GrayKey blackbox could apparently unlock an iPhone in about two hours if the owner used a four-digit passcode and in about three days or longer if a six-digit passcode was used.

In 2018, Apple said it was able to re-secure its iPhone against Grayshift’s GrayKey blackbox through an iOS update. The FBI warrant, however, indicates that update may not have been as successful as Apple hoped.

Regardless, the government still appears to prefer that Apple simply put a backdoor in its platform for law enforcement to access during criminal investigations.

Apple disputed Barr’s claim that it had not given “substantive assistance” in the investigation, noting it provided access to the cloud service used to back up data on Alshamrani’s phones.

“Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing,” Apple said. “Within hours of the FBI’s first request on December 6th, we produced a wide variety of information associated with the investigation. From December 7th through the 14th, we received six additional legal requests and in response provided information including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts.”

Reiterating its past stance against backdoors, Apple said: “We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys. Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers. Today, law enforcement has access to more data than ever before in history, so Americans do not have to choose between weakening encryption and solving investigations. We feel strongly encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users’ data.”

Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director of the non-profit digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Apple is right to provide strong security to its users, requiring a passcode or biometrics to unlock their smartphones.

“The Attorney General’s request that Apple re-engineer its phones to break that security imperils millions of innocent Americans and others around the globe, and is a poor trade-off for security policy,” Opsahl said.

The latest request by the Justice Department is part of an ongoing struggle between law enforcement and Apple. In 2016, the Justice Department, backed by a federal court injunction, ordered Apple to unlock the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, a suspect in the San Bernadino terrorist attack, in December of that year.

At the time, Apple CEO Tim Cook said his company could not give the FBI any more help, claimed that utilising the law justifying the court’s order was “unprecedented” and again refused to help unlock the iPhone.

IDG News Service

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