Apple is adding more features in iOS 11 that are designed to guard your digital privacy from anyone who catches your iPhone. The policeman who just threw you in jail cannot access the data.
Its new features include changes designed to make extracting the data from a seized phone far more difficult without the phone’s six-digit passcode. And while those changes seem aimed at protecting iPhone users’ data from run of the thieves. It could also mark another escalation in Apple’s tensions. Law enforcement officials and customs agents who want the ability to extract data wholesale from the phones of criminal suspects and travelers at the border.
According to a blog post from Russian forensics software firm Elcomsoft Apple has made at least two significant changes to iOS 11. It may create new hurdles for those trying to access the innards of a seized iPhone. First, they’ve added a crucial step to the process of moving a phone’s contents to a forensic analyst’s desktop computer. A change that could significantly reduce the amount of data police can access on seized phones. Even if they manage to confiscate them in an unlocked state.
In recent versions of iOS, any iPhone plugged into an unfamiliar computer would ask the user if he or she was willing to trust that new machine before exchanging any data with it. That meant if cops or border agents were able to seize an unlocked iPhone or compel its owner to unlock a locked one with a finger on its TouchID sensor, they could simply plug it into a desktop via a cable in its lightning port, choose to trust the new machine with a tap, and upload its contents using forensic software like Elcomsoft or Cellebrite. That’s particularly important because courts have found criminal suspects can’t plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to offer their fingerprints, as they sometimes can with a password or passcode.
But in iOS 11, iPhones will not only require a tap to trust a new computer, but the phone’s passcode, too. If forensic analysts do seize a phone while it’s unlocked or use its owner’s finger to unlock it, they still need a passcode to offload its data to a program where it can be analyzed wholesale. They can still flip through the data on the phone itself. But if the owner refuses to divulge the passcode, they can’t use forensic tools to access its data in the far more digestible format for analysis known as SQLite.
The SQLite databases that forensic tools can pull from phones. Often include supposedly deleted messages from iMessage, Whatsapp, and Viber. Even after you’ve deleted it, records of the data is still there. But without the kind of database access gained by copying the phone’s data to a PC. Investigators will have no way to recover those potentially hidden gems of evidence.
Customs and Border Protection agents can take advantage of a bizarre loophole. In the fourth amendment to search Americans’ devices at the border without even obtaining a warrant. For past versions of iOS, that’s meant they could take your phone, copy its contents to their own computer. Analyze that private data at their leisure. Now, they can only look at a phone’s data manually on the spot. While you’re physically present at the border, or by taking the more drastic step of seizing the device.
Apple SOS feature
Apple’s developer beta for iOS 11 also reveals a more straightforward protection against searches of a seized iPhone. In the form of a new iOS feature called S.O.S. mode. Tap the phone’s home button five times, and it will launch a new lockscreen with options to make an emergency call. It offer up the owner’s emergency medical information. But that S.O.S. mode also silently disables TouchID, requiring a passcode to unlock the phone. That feature could be used to prevent someone from using the owner’s finger to unlock their phone. But it also provides quick way to disable TouchID before police kick in your door. If pulled you out of a car and arrest you. Powering the device off works too, though it may be slightly slower.
Another new feature expected in the iPhone 8: face recognition. As Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos hinted in a tweet. Unlocking your iPhone by showing your face is not secure method of authentication.
Disabling that feature along with TouchID and falling back on requiring a passcode. In some situations where the phone is likely to be out of the user’s control. Serves as a smart way to balance the convenience of facial recognition against the privacy risks it creates.