Is iPhone Security Really this Good?
Simson Garfinkel writes that the iPhone has such good security that the police can’t use it for forensics anymore:
Technologies the company has adopted protect Apple customers’ content so well that in many situations it’s impossible for law enforcement to perform forensic examinations of devices seized from criminals. Most significant is the increasing use of encryption, which is beginning to cause problems for law enforcement agencies when they encounter systems with encrypted drives.
“I can tell you from the Department of Justice perspective, if that drive is encrypted, you’re done,” Ovie Carroll, director of the cyber-crime lab at the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section in the Department of Justice, said during his keynote address at the DFRWS computer forensics conference in Washington, D.C., last Monday. “When conducting criminal investigations, if you pull the power on a drive that is whole-disk encrypted you have lost any chance of recovering that data.”
Yes, I believe that full-disk encryption—whether Apple’s FileVault or Microsoft’s BitLocker (I don’t know what the iOS system is called)—is good; but its security is only as good as the user is at choosing a good password.
The iPhone always supported a PIN lock, but the PIN wasn’t a deterrent to a serious attacker until the iPhone 3GS. Because those early phones didn’t use their hardware to perform encryption, a skilled investigator could hack into the phone, dump its flash memory, and directly access the phone’s address book, e-mail messages, and other information. But now, with Apple’s more sophisticated approach to encryption, investigators who want to examine data on a phone have to try every possible PIN. Examiners perform these so-called brute-force attacks with special software, because the iPhone can be programmed to wipe itself if the wrong PIN is provided more than 10 times in a row. This software must be run on the iPhone itself, limiting the guessing speed to 80 milliseconds per PIN. Trying all four-digit PINs therefore requires no more than 800 seconds, a little more than 13 minutes. However, if the user chooses a six-digit PIN, the maximum time required would be 22 hours; a nine-digit PIN would require 2.5 years, and a 10-digit pin would take 25 years. That’s good enough for most corporate secrets—and probably good enough for most criminals as well.
Leaving aside the user practice questions—my guess is that very few users, even those with something to hide, use a ten-digit PIN—could this possibly be true? In the introduction to Applied Cryptography, almost 20 years ago, I wrote: “There are two kinds of cryptography in this world: cryptography that will stop your kid sister from reading your files, and cryptography that will stop major governments from reading your files.”
Since then, I’ve learned two things: 1) there are a lot of gradients to kid sister cryptography, and 2) major government cryptography is very hard to get right. It’s not the cryptography; it’s everything around the cryptography. I said as much in the preface to Secrets and Lies in 2000:
Cryptography is a branch of mathematics. And like all mathematics, it involves numbers, equations, and logic. Security, palpable security that you or I might find useful in our lives, involves people: things people know, relationships between people, people and how they relate to machines. Digital security involves computers: complex, unstable, buggy computers.
Mathematics is perfect; reality is subjective. Mathematics is defined; computers are ornery. Mathematics is logical; people are erratic, capricious, and barely comprehensible.
If, in fact, we’ve finally achieved something resembling this level of security for our computers and handheld computing devices, this is something to celebrate.
But I’m skeptical.
Slashdot has a thread on the article.