According to The Washington Post, the security hole in Apple's code was exploited by a group of Johns Hopkins University researchers, led by computer science professor Matthew D. Green.
Green reportedly alerted Apple to the problem last year after he read an Apple security guide describing an encryption process that struck him as weak. When a few months passed and the flaw remained, Green and his graduate students decided to mount an attack to show that they could break the encryption of photos and videos sent over iMessage.
The team succeeded by writing software that mimicked an Apple server and hijacked the encrypted transmission of the targeted phone. The transmission contained a link to a photo stored in Apple’s iCloud server as well as a 64-digit key to decrypt the photo.
While the students could not see the key's digits, they guessed them by a repetitive process of changing a digit or a letter in the key and sending it back to the target phone. Each time they guessed a digit correctly, the phone accepted it. The phone was probed in this way thousands of times until the team guessed the correct key and was able to retrieve the photo from Apple's server.
Apple said that it partially fixed the problem last fall when it released iOS 9, and will fully address the issue through security improvements in iOS 9.3, which is expected to be released this week. The company's statement read:
Apple works hard to make our software more secure with every release. We appreciate the team of researchers that identified this bug and brought it to our attention so we could patch the vulnerability. Security requires constant dedication and we're grateful to have a community of developers and researchers who help us stay ahead.The news comes amid Apple's ongoing legal battle with the FBI in connection with the iPhone at the center of the San Bernadino shooter investigation. The FBI has requested help from Apple to unlock the phone, but the company has so far refused.
The FBI wants to access data stored on the iPhone in question, whereas the Johns Hopkins research focused on the interception of data transmitted between devices. However, Green believes that his team's work highlights the inherent security risks of the FBI's demands in the California case.
"Even Apple, with all their skills — and they have terrific cryptographers — wasn't able to quite get this right," Green told the newspaper. "So it scares me that we're having this conversation about adding backdoors to encryption when we can't even get basic encryption right."
Apple will face off against the FBI in court on Tuesday, one day after the company's March 21 event that will see the debut of the 4-inch iPhone SE and the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. MacRumors will post a direct link to Apple's media event once it becomes available.
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