This a good example of a security feature that can sometimes harm security:
Apple introduced the optional recovery key in 2020 to protect users from online hackers. Users who turn on the recovery key, a unique 28-digit code, must provide it when they want to reset their Apple ID password.
iPhone thieves with your passcode can flip on the recovery key and lock you out. And if you already have the recovery key enabled, they can easily generate a new one, which also locks you out.
Apple’s policy gives users virtually no way back into their accounts without that recovery key. For now, a stolen iPhone could mean devastating personal losses.
It’s actually a complicated crime. The criminal first watches their victim type in their passcode and then grabs the phone out of their hands. In the basic mode of this attack, they have a few hours to use the phone—trying to access bank accounts, etc.—before the owner figures out how to shut the attacker out. With the addition of the recovery key, the attacker can shut the owner out—for a long time.
The goal of the recovery key was to defend against SIM swapping, which is a much more common crime. But this spy-and-grab attack has become more common, and the recovery key makes it much more devastating.
Defenses are few: choose a long, complex passcode. Or set parental controls in a way that further secure the device. The obvious fix is for Apple to redesign its recovery system.
There are other, less privacy-compromising methods Apple could still rely on in lieu of a recovery key.
If someone takes over your Google account, Google’s password-reset process lets you provide a recovery email, phone number or account password, and you can use them to regain access later, even if a hijacker changes them.
Going through the process on a familiar Wi-Fi network or location can also help demonstrate you’re who you say you are.
Or how about an eight-hour delay before the recovery key can be changed?
This not an easy thing to design for, but we have to get this right as phones become the single point of control for our lives.
Posted on April 21, 2023 at 10:19 AM •