Many iOS Encryption Measures 'Unused,' Say Cryptographers

iOS does not utilize built-in encryption measures as much as it could do, allowing for potentially unnecessary security vulnerabilities, according to cryptographers at Johns Hopkins University (via Wired).

iPhone 12 Security Feature

Using publicly available documentation from Apple and Google, law enforcement reports about bypassing mobile security features, and their own analysis, the cryptographers assessed the robustness of iOS and Android encryption. The research found that while encryption infrastructure on iOS "sounds really good," it is largely left unused:

"On iOS in particular, the infrastructure is in place for this hierarchical encryption that sounds really good," said Maximilian Zinkus, lead iOS researcher. "But I was definitely surprised to see then how much of it is unused."

When an iPhone boots up, all stored data is in a state of "Complete Protection," and the user must unlock the device before anything can be decrypted. While this is extremely secure, the researchers highlighted that once the device has been unlocked for the first time after a reboot, a large amount of data moves into a state Apple calls "Protected Until First User Authentication."

Since devices are rarely restarted, most data is in a state of "Protected Until First User Authentication" rather than "Complete Protection" most of the time. The advantage of this less secure state is that decryption keys are stored in quick access memory, where they can be swiftly accessed by applications.

In theory, an attacker could find and exploit certain types of security vulnerabilities in iOS to obtain encryption keys in the quick access memory, enabling them to decrypt large amounts of data from the device. It is believed that this is how many smartphone access tools work, such as those from the forensic access company Grayshift.

While it is true that attackers require a specific operating system vulnerability to access the keys, and both Apple and Google patch many of these flaws as they are noticed, it may be avoidable by hiding encryption keys more deeply.

"It just really shocked me, because I came into this project thinking that these phones are really protecting user data well," says Johns Hopkins cryptographer Matthew Green. "Now I've come out of the project thinking almost nothing is protected as much as it could be. So why do we need a backdoor for law enforcement when the protections that these phones actually offer are so bad?"

The researchers also shared their findings and a number of technical recommendations with Apple directly. A spokesperson for Apple offered a public statement in response:

"Apple devices are designed with multiple layers of security in order to protect against a wide range of potential threats, and we work constantly to add new protections for our users' data. As customers continue to increase the amount of sensitive information they store on their devices, we will continue to develop additional protections in both hardware and software to protect their data."

The spokesperson also told Wired that Apple's security work is primarily focused on protecting users from hackers, thieves, and criminals looking to steal personal information. They also noted that the types of attacks the researchers highlighted are very costly to develop, require physical access to the target device, and only work until Apple releases a patch. Apple also emphasized that its objective with iOS is to balance security and convenience.

Related Roundups: iOS 14, iPadOS 14

Top Rated Comments

Joseph C Avatar
2 days ago at 06:23 am
The biggest problem for me is that Apple planned to make iCloud backups end to end encrypted but this was thwarted.

Thus really even on Apple devices we have little privacy if we use iCloud.
Score: 26 Votes (Like | Disagree)
aid Avatar
2 days ago at 07:00 am


I wouldn't mind sacrificing some speed when logging in/opening applications to have my phone in a state of "complete protection" when ever I lock it. I do however have no idea what impact this will have for calls, text and other notifications. But we are at a place where the iPhone is fast enough that added security shouldn't be noticed to much on new models

The problem is that enforcing the "complete protection" at all times would result in you having to enter your password every time you use your phone. Nor would the phone be able to perform background operations whilst it was locked - such as check email, accept incoming notifications etc. The impact is not about a couple millisecond delay as users start using the phone - but real changes to the user experience.

All of security it a balance between privacy and convenience; I think Apple's balance in iOS is pretty good - and appropriate for something like 99.5% of the users out there.
Score: 15 Votes (Like | Disagree)
velocityg4 Avatar
2 days ago at 06:43 am
It would be nice if they had a USB off option. I know there is USB Restricted Mode. But that still gives an hour where the USB port may be attacked (plus loopholes to reset the timer). When we should have the option to disable all data connections to the USB port entirely. Whether or not the phone is unlocked. Only allowing charging. Heck with wireless charging now. Users should have the option to totally disable the port.


So, TL;DR, it seems that I should restart my phone every day.

Doesn't really help. As soon as you use it the vulnerability returns. You'd have to turn it off whenever you aren't using it.
Score: 11 Votes (Like | Disagree)
AngerDanger Avatar
2 days ago at 07:53 am


Then what was the slogan all about “what’s on iPhone stays on iPhone” ? Or something like that lol

My guess is that the original was more accurate but less eloquent.



Attachment Image
Score: 10 Votes (Like | Disagree)
dvanwinkle Avatar
2 days ago at 07:04 am


So, TL;DR, it seems that I should restart my phone every day.

You don't have to restart your phone. Hitting the power button 5 times in a row forces the phone into the Complete Protection mode as well.
Score: 7 Votes (Like | Disagree)
lkrupp Avatar
2 days ago at 07:10 am
The last paragraph is the most important.

The spokesperson also told Wired that Apple's security work is primarily focused on protecting users from hackers, thieves, and criminals looking to steal personal information. T[I]hey also noted that the types of attacks the researchers highlighted are very costly to develop, require physical access to the target device, and only work until Apple releases a patch. [/I]Apple also emphasized that its objective with iOS is to balance security and convenience.

So all you worrywarts out there thinking Apple security is crap need to take chill pill and relax. If you had 100% security you wouldn’t be able to use your device.
Score: 7 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

16inchmacbookpromain

Kuo: New MacBook Pro Models to Feature Flat-Edged Design, MagSafe, No Touch Bar and More Ports

Thursday January 14, 2021 9:32 pm PST by
Apple is working on two new MacBook Pro models that will feature significant design changes, well-respected Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said today in a note to investors that was obtained by MacRumors. According to Kuo, Apple is developing two models in 14 and 16-inch size options. The new MacBook Pro machines will feature a flat-edged design, which Kuo describes as "similar to the iPhone 12" ...
iphone x camera close

iOS 14.4 Will Introduce Warning on iPhones With Non-Genuine Cameras

Thursday January 14, 2021 8:07 am PST by
In the second beta of iOS 14.4 seeded to developers and public testers this week, MacRumors contributor Steve Moser has discovered code indicating that Apple will be introducing a new warning on iPhones that have had their camera repaired or replaced with aftermarket components rather than genuine Apple components. "Unable to verify this iPhone has a genuine Apple camera," the message will...
prototype iphone 12 pro

Prototype iPhone 12 Pro Shown Off in Photos

Wednesday January 13, 2021 3:39 pm PST by
Developer Giulio Zompetti, who often shows off prototype versions of Apple devices, today highlighted a prototype version of the iPhone 12 Pro. The iPhone 12 Pro is running an operating system called SwitchBoard, a nonUI version of the iOS 14 update that Apple uses internally. We've seen SwitchBoard on prototype devices before, as Apple uses it to test new features. Zompetti's prototype...
find my app safari post

Safari Allows Users to Enable Hidden 'Items' Tab in 'Find My' App Ahead of AirTags Launch

Wednesday January 13, 2021 5:45 am PST by
As seen in screenshots obtained by MacRumors in 2019, Apple's long-rumored AirTags items trackers are expected to be managed through the Find My app on iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Now, any user can get an early look at this tab. MacRumors reader David Chu today alerted us that the hidden "Items" tab in the Find My app can be enabled on an iPhone or iPad by typing in the link findmy://items in...
pioneer carplay wc5700nex

The Best Apple-Related Accessories at CES 2021

Wednesday January 13, 2021 1:16 pm PST by
CES 2021 is taking place digitally this year, and it hasn't been as exciting as in past years because many vendors have opted out. That said, some companies are still showing off some interesting Apple-related accessories that are coming out this year and that will be of interest to Mac, iPad, and iPhone users. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. Pioneer Wireless...
Hue module dimmer switch

Philips Hue Announces New Wall Switch Module, Dimmer Switch, and Outdoor Light Bar

Thursday January 14, 2021 3:11 am PST by
Philips Hue has announced a new wireless dimmer switch module that lets Hue bridge owners directly control the smart lighting from their standard wall switches. The new Philips Hue wall switch module is the ideal addition to any Philips Hue set up. Installed behind existing light switches, it allows users to turn their existing switch into a smart switch and ensures their smart lighting is...
macbook pro 16 inch thunderbolt

Bloomberg: Next-Generation MacBook Pro to Offer Improved Displays, Faster Charging Over MagSafe

Thursday January 14, 2021 11:36 pm PST by
Following today's report from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo outlining major changes for the next-generation MacBook Pro models coming in the third quarter of this year, Bloomberg's Mark Gurman has weighed in with his own report corroborating some of the details but seemingly differing a bit on others. First, Gurman shares more details on the return of MagSafe charging to the MacBook Pro, indicating...
cook cbs this morning

CBS This Morning: Apple to Make 'Big Announcement' Tomorrow Morning

Tuesday January 12, 2021 8:46 am PST by
CBS This Morning today shared a short clip of an upcoming interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook in which addressing last week's events at the U.S. Capitol, with Cook saying "it's key that people be held accountable for it." Following the clip, Gayle King of CBS noted that the interview with Cook was not specifically arranged to address the current controversy over Parler and other repercussions, ...
iOS 14

Apple Seeds Second Betas of iOS 14.4 and iPadOS 14.4 to Developers [Update: Public Beta Available]

Wednesday January 13, 2021 10:03 am PST by
Apple today seeded the second betas of upcoming iOS 14.4 and iPadOS 14.4 updates to developers for testing purposes, with the new betas coming a month after Apple released the first betas. iOS 14.4 and iPadOS 14.4 can be downloaded through the Apple Developer Center or over the air after the proper profile has been installed on an iPhone or iPad. Paired with the HomePod 14.4 beta that is...
caldigit thunderbolt 4 dock featured

CalDigit Introduces USB-C Dock With 10 Ports and Up to 94W Charging for Macs [Updated]

Wednesday January 13, 2021 9:16 am PST by
CalDigit today unveiled a new Thunderbolt 4 dock with a wide selection of connectivity options, including three USB-A ports, one USB-C port, two HDMI 2.0 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, an SD card slot, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The dock also has a Thunderbolt 4 port that allows it to be connected to a Mac with a single cable, with up to 94W of pass-through charging for the latest MacBook...