Over the last days, there is a huge discussion between Apple and FBI in relation to the access to San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook’s iPhone. FBI demand to hack the phone so the agency obtains full access to the Farook’s iPhone data with Apple’s assistance; however Apple rejects the demand backing it up by the idea of protection of the privacy of all iPhone users. Moreover, Apple publicly announced its dismiss of the court order since the provision of such access would generate a backdoor into Apple products which in turns would provide unrestricted access to experts and criminals to Apple customer data, thus open opportunity of spying on Apple users in terms of intercepting phone calls, text messages and tracking their location through GPS.
The current debate has merged into an argument regarding the Apple digital rights and protection of privacy of its clients against the FBI argument concerning Farook’s possible links to terrorist networks as well as future prevention of terrorist plots declaring that security and justice are more significant concerns in comparison to privacy (Ghosh, 2016).
In accordance with FBI statements the access to the San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook’s iPhone 5c data is only possible through the Apple assistance in terms of creating a backdoor due to the fact that FBI had already tried other methods such as returning the iPhone to its home Wi-Fi network aiming at backing up automatically San Bernardino perpetrator’s data to the iCloud but unsuccessfully because Farook seemed to have disabled the automatic update function. Another FBI’s unsuccessful technique is associated with the attempt to access Farook’s iCloud account through resetting his Apple ID; however the resetting provoked Apple Security Measure which averted the backup of the iPhone data.
But Edward Snowden, former NSA whistleblower thinks otherwise. According to him FBI is not limited only to this way to access Farook’s iPhone 5c content, but instead, FBI can rely on the use of acid and lasers to access the iPhone data with no need of Apple to hack the iPhone.
“The problem is, the FBI has other means… They told the courts they didn’t, but they do. The FBI does not want to do this,” said Snowden“
The mechanism proposed by Snowden is well-known as „chip decapping” (Ghosh, 2016).
Process of chip decapping
Chip decapping is a method during which the main processor chip is physically processed to extract its contents. The first step is the use of acid to get rid of the chip’s encapsulation followed by a laser drill down into the chip with the purpose of displaying the share of the memory which comprises the iPhone’s distinctive ID so-called UDID data.
The next step involves the placement of tiny probes on the spot where the data is, in order to display gradually the UDID and the algorithm utilized to resolve it. After the extraction of the information, the FBI is enabled to transfer it to a super computer so the missing passcodes can be recovered through trying all probable combinations whereas one unlocks the phone data. Furthermore, due to the fact that the mechanism is implemented outside the iOS the danger that the data will be wiped out or self-destruct is limited. Of course, this method also has weaknesses, and the most significant one is the occurrence of a minor mistake during the implementation of the method can lead to chip destruction which in turns means that all access to the phone’s data will be permanently lost (Goodin, 2016).
Infrared laser glitching
During an interview with an independent researcher conducted by the media (ABC News), the decapping technique was discussed so the interviewee shared his/her opinion that this method will have doubtful success against an iPhone and it’s likely to result in permanent loss of the content.
In addition, the interviewee suggested that the use of infrared laser glitching would be a better option because the chance to lose the data is slightly reduced. The method is associated with the slight piercing of the chip followed by getting access to UID data through an infrared laser (Goodin, 2016).
Furthermore, this particular method proved to be effective in the past by the hardware hacker Chris Tarnovsky who conducted an attack which led to damage on the microcontroller disabling the lockdown of Xbox 360 game console. To perform his attack, Tarnovsky used an electron microscope, well-known as ion beam workstation which enabled him to examine the chip in terms of nanometer scale. As a result, he had the ability to manipulate and control its individual wires utilizing microscopic needles. Therefore, such methods are technically doable against an iPhone but these methods lack the practicality due to the fact that the degree of destroying forever the hardware is significantly high and the use of these mechanisms is immensely high (Goodin, 2016).
The federal magistrate judge has ordered Apple to produce software which will be able to work against all older iPhones which lack modifications. This new software will provide the possibility of updating even when an iPhone has used “secure enclave” protections, in other words the software will have functions to bypass secure enclave protections. The only thing that Apple is required to do is to change the digital signature on very little cost thus the software will be able to run on different devices (Goodin, 2016).
Ghosh, A. (2016). Apple vs FBI: Snowden says decapping can crack iPhone used by San Bernardino attacker Syed Farook. IBT. Retrieved from http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/apple-vs-fbi-snowden-says-decapping-can-crack-iphone-used-by-san-bernardino-attacker-syed-farook-1545397
Goodin, D. (2016). How the FBI could use acid and lasers to access data stored on seized iPhone. Ars Technica. Retrieved from http://arstechnica.com/security/2016/02/how-the-fbi-could-use-acid-and-lasers-to-access-data-stored-on-seized-iphone/
About the Author Desislava Stoyneva
Edited by Pierluigi Paganini
(Security Affairs – iPhone, FBI vs Apple)