Security Researchers Find Way to Prevent USB Restricted Mode From Activating on iOS Devices

Security researchers claim to have discovered a loophole that prevents an iPhone or iPad from activating USB Restricted Mode, Apple's latest anti-hacking feature in iOS 12 beta and iOS 11.4.1, which was released on Monday.

USB Restricted Mode is designed to make iPhones and iPads immune to certain hacking techniques that use a USB connection to download data through the Lightning connector to crack the passcode.

iOS 11.4.1 and iOS 12 prevent this by default by disabling data access to the Lightning port if it's been more than an hour since the iOS device was last unlocked. Users can also quickly disable the USB connection manually by engaging Emergency SOS mode.

However, researchers at cybersecurity firm ElcomSoft claim to have discovered a loophole that resets the one-hour counter. The bypass technique involves connecting a USB accessory into the Lightning port of the iOS device, which prevents USB Restricted Mode from locking after one hour.

ElcomSoft's Oleg Afonin explained the technique in a blog post:
What we discovered is that iOS will reset the USB Restrictive Mode countdown timer even if one connects the iPhone to an untrusted USB accessory, one that has never been paired to the iPhone before (well, in fact the accessories do not require pairing at all). In other words, once the police officer seizes an iPhone, he or she would need to immediately connect that iPhone to a compatible USB accessory to prevent USB Restricted Mode lock after one hour. Importantly, this only helps if the iPhone has still not entered USB Restricted Mode.
According to Afonin, Apple's own $39 Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter can be used to reset the counter. Researchers are currently testing a mix of official and third-party adapters to see what else works with the bypass technique.

Afonin notes that ElcomSoft found no obvious way to break USB Restricted Mode once it has been engaged, suggesting the vulnerability is, in his words, "probably nothing more than an oversight" on Apple's part. Still, at present its existence provides a potential avenue for law enforcement or other potentially malicious actors to prevent USB Restricted Mode from activating shortly after seizure.

Both iOS 11.4.1 and iOS 12 beta 2 are said to exhibit the same behavior when exploiting the loophole. However, expect this to change in subsequent versions of iOS – Apple continually works on strengthening security protections and addressing iPhone vulnerabilities as quickly as possible to defend against hackers.

Apple reportedly introduced USB restrictions to disable commercial passcode cracking tools like GrayKey. Afonin cites rumors that the newer GrayShift tool is able to defeat the protection provided by USB Restricted Mode, but the research community has yet to see firm evidence confirming this.

Top Rated Comments

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20 months ago
Interesting, so the cops would need to confiscate the alleged evidence and transport it back to wherever they take it and then keep it plugged into the device. might be tough to do within an hour, but I'm sure they'll find a way. And I'm also sure Apple will find a way to close this loophole. Cat and mouse continues.
Rating: 10 Votes
20 months ago
There is always going to be a ping-pong, back-and-forth effect to this kind of thing with problems and solutions; but having an Apple device and having Apple on your side working to protect it is, while not perfect, the closest thing to it you will find with any company. Nobody else really cares about protecting your data quite like Apple does.
Rating: 8 Votes
20 months ago
Apple seemingly doing anything to sell their overpriced adapters...
Rating: 7 Votes
20 months ago
Have I misunderstood this? What they're saying is that <1 hour and you plug in a USB, it resets the count-down timer for the USB lockout.

So imagine you unlock/lock your phone, and plug it in to your computer shortly afterward. You wouldn't want the USB lock to engage would you? Say for example if you were copying 100GB of movies to it.

Or is the lack of 'trusted' devices enabling the reset of the counter? I.e. A mistake on the expected behaviour.

PS. I've not had nearly enough coffee yet.
Rating: 7 Votes
20 months ago
Makes sense seeing some accessories like the HDMI adapter do not require authorization in the first place.

I wouldn't see this as an oversight. Can't have a perfect solution.
Rating: 6 Votes
20 months ago
One could also change the 6-digit PIN to a password (mix of characters) and defeat any graybox regardless.
Rating: 6 Votes
20 months ago

Apple has never been good on security.

They invest a lot in terms of making sure the iPhone cant be hacked, sideloading apps etc... But security on iOS and OSX has always been something they don't spend a lot of resources on.

How is this news? Seems click-bait-y to me. "Scary headline" followed by predicable "Apple have never been good on security" blah blah... honestly, a lot of companies would not be putting it up to the FBI like this. I think its unlikely they'll be arriving at crime scenes and finding very many phones locked in under an hour. Or, considering this was all sparked by the San Bernardino (no?) case, that guy's 'second' phone was at home, in his house, and it was a few days before the FBI were on the scene. What Apple have put in place here seems a very strong statement of the company's intention to protect civil liberties.
Rating: 5 Votes
20 months ago
One possible Improvement:

Only keep Lightning enabled if a device is present at the time I lock the phone and only as long as that device is connected.
Otherwise disable the port instantly when I lock the phone.

Of course that is something that users would notice so it probably has to be an option

If regular users did this, at 59 minutes mark, the timers resets, but in a 'good' way, because nothing would be more frustrating than a user charging a phone and the the device cannot be charged anymore because of USB restricted mode 'Enabled', after 60 minutes.

Charging is not affected by the port locking down
Rating: 4 Votes
20 months ago
How about this. Let me completely disable port data usage because I never use it for anything anyways.
Rating: 4 Votes
20 months ago

In other words, once the police officer seizes an iPhone, he or she would need to immediately connect that iPhone to a compatible USB accessory to prevent USB Restricted Mode lock after one hour. Importantly, this only helps if the iPhone has still not entered USB Restricted Mode.

In other news, if you leave your phone unlocked, someone can make it stay unlocked by playing with it.

Or like an iPad with an option set: lock after 4 hours, etc. of not using

USB Restricted Mode is not so different here, it locks after one hour after of NOT using, so someone can prolong this period by connecting it to any* device.

Yes, this is an oversight, that *some* devices (not just trusted) can prolong this behavior, but once locked:

Importantly, this only helps if the iPhone has still not entered USB Restricted Mode.

It stays locked.

Maybe it's not a mistake, but the design of this secure connection, maybe if it doesn't transmit any data with untrusted devices, it doesn't know it's trusted or untrusted. Moreover, they didn't want to make it so much pain in the ass (what suggest a lack of option Immediately, just at least 1 hour) so it prolongs this time (lockdown timer) by being connected just to any device.

After all, when the police grabs a malicious iPhone, they very often have an access to their computers, e.g. when they raid some hidden places of criminals. So even if Apple will set this to Immediately, criminals should watch out.
Rating: 4 Votes

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