Apple Introduces a New iPhone Privacy Feature

A number of controversies have emerged in recent years in relation to Apple’s refusal to release material of interest as part of criminal investigations. Police and other law enforcement agencies feel they should have the right to access evidence stored on phones, while Apple is adamant that releasing such evidence would breach its customers’ rights to privacy.

Apple has now announced that its iOS 11.4.1 and iOS 12 systems will have a “USB Restricted Mode” capability, which will turn off the data connection accessible through the Lightning port if a device is locked for more than an hour. This will be a default setting, which will mean that, from one hour of the time of the device being locked, the Lightning port can only be used for charging.

The implication for law enforcement agencies is that once they have seized a suspect’s iPhone, they will only have an hour at most to try to extract information using specialized software for cracking iPhones provided by specialist companies like GrayShift, Cellebrite, etc. GrayKey from GrayShift is widely used for this purpose, with at least ten states and federal agencies known to employ it. GrayKey gains access through the Lightning port and allows the user to make unlimited attempts to crack the device password. However, depending on how long the password is, the process can last between two hours and three days.

According to recent reports, law enforcement agencies are far from impressed with Apple’s new feature; however, Apple claims it is protecting customers, not the criminals. They have pointed out that the new feature prevents both criminals and law enforcement personnel from accessing a user’s data. The new software, they insist, is designed to block hackers, identity theft, and similar personal intrusions, and was not designed to frustrate law enforcement officers.

However, as USB Restricted Mode has already been rolled out in beta versions for iOS 11.4.1 and iOS 12, and is included in the final OS rollout, it seems likely that there will be further clashes between Apple and law enforcement agencies along the lines of the San Bernardino iPhone controversy of 2016. In that case, Apple would not agree to FBI demands to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters. Ultimately, the Bureau used a third party, probably Cellebrite, to crack the device.