Could this be the answer to FBI Director Chris Wray's call for broken device encryption?
In what appears to be a major breakthrough for law enforcement, and a possible privacy problem for Apple customers, a major U.S. government contractor claims to have found a way to unlock pretty much every iPhone on the market.
Cellebrite, a Petah Tikva, Israel-based vendor that's become the U.S. government's company of choice when it comes to unlocking mobile devices, is this month telling customers its engineers currently have the ability to get around the security of devices running iOS 11. That includes the iPhone X, a model that Forbes has learned was successfully raided for data by the Department for Homeland Security back in November 2017, most likely with Cellebrite technology.
Big, if true, but not exactly the answer Wray, and others like him, are seeking. Cellebrite claims it can crack any Apple device, including Apple's latest iPhone. This is a boon for law enforcement, as long as they have the money to spend on it and the time to send the device to Cellebrite to crack it.
It won't scale because it can't. The FBI claims it has thousands of locked devices -- not all of them Apple products -- and no one from Cellebrite is promising fast turnaround times. Even if it was low-cost and relatively scalable, it's unlikely to keep Wray from pushing for a government mandate. Whatever flaw in the architecture is being exploited by Cellebrite is likely to be patched up by Apple as soon as it can figure out the company's attack vector. And, ultimately, the fact that it doesn't scale isn't something to worry about (though the FBI doubtless will). No one said investigating criminal activity was supposed to easy and, in fact, a handful of Constitutional amendments are in place to slow law enforcement's roll to prevent the steamrolling of US citizens.
Cellebrite's service apparently disables lockscreen protection, allowing the company to root around in the phone's innards to pull out whatever law enforcement is seeking. This also apparently works with Android devices, although that news is far less surprising than discovering Apple's security measures have been defeated. Default encryption isn't an option for all Android devices and that operating system is generally considered to be the a pile of vulnerabilities d/b/a consumer software.
While this won't end calls for weakened encryption, it does at least give law enforcement agencies another option to deploy against locked devices. But I don't expect it to change the rhetoric. Those calling for "responsible encryption" don't really want private sector solutions, no matter how much they claim to want to hold a "conversation" about lawful access. They want tech company subservience. They want the government -- via judicial, executive, or legislative branch -- to put companies in their place. In their opinion, tech companies have been getting uppity and forgetting the private sector exists to serve the government. It's not just a Chris Wray problem. Plenty of government officials feel the same way. But the complaints about "going dark" are going to ring that much hollower when solutions are being offered by private companies other than the ones the FBI is just dying to smack around.