Can The Government Hack Your iPhone?

Touch ID of an Apple iPhone 6 Plus
George Frey/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Recently, the news has been abuzz with talk of the US government wanting a backdoor into a terrorist's iPhone so they could obtain evidence of a crime that had been committed or perhaps even discover new information that could help them thwart future attacks. The problem they encountered with obtaining the evidence they wanted was that the iPhone's security protection mechanism was too strong for them to break without destroying the data on the phone.

This issue has caused somewhat of a political firestorm. On one side, you have the government with a legal right to obtain evidence but not being able to. On the other side, you have Apple, a tech giant, not wanting to comply with the order because doing so could set a precedent in many privacy advocates eyes and cause us to venture down a road where individual privacy is no longer a right. Not to mention that creating this mythical backdoor could open up a Pandora's box of other ethics and privacy issues.

As a security professional, we have to walk a tightrope on these types of issues. On the one hand personal privacy is a fundamental right that should be guaranteed but on the other hand, we know that bad people do bad things and will often try to use security tools such as strong encryption to hide the bad things they are doing.

If we use the house and search warrant analogy, the government basically has a legal search warrant to search someone's house (the terrorist's iPhone) but they can't get in because the lock on the front door will trigger the house do destroy itself after a set number of failed attempts to break in have occurred.

They want Apple to play the role of the locksmith and let them in.

When most people hear this story, they wonder "why is the government having such a hard time getting into these phones?" The answer: the terrorist enabled several security features on the phone that the government can't hack without the data on the phone basically self-destructing.

What Security Feature Is Keeping The Government From Hacking The Terrorist's iPhone?

Part One of What's Blocking The Government - Passcode Protection

Once you enable a passcode your device is encrypted. As apple explains it on their website "Data protection is available for devices that offer hardware encryption, including iPhone 3GS and later, all iPad models, and iPod touch (3rd generation and later). Data protection enhances the built-in hardware encryption by protecting the hardware encryption keys with your passcode. This provides an additional layer of protection for your email messages attachments and third-party applications."

Once you've added that passcode, you've effectively encrypted your phone with a key that only you know. If you've used the complex passcode option, then you've made things even harder to crack because you've increased the number of possible combinations of your passcode. The longer the passcode, the harder it is to crack.

Part Two of What's Blocking The Government - The iPhone's 'Self-Destruct' Feature  (Data Wipe After 10 Failed Passcode Attempts)

The feature that is proving to be a thorn in the FBI's side is Apple's "self-destruct" feature. This feature wipes the phone's data after 10 incorrect passcode entries.

This helps prevent brute-force passcode cracking attempts because, after the 10th try, BOOM, the data is wiped.

From what I can tell, the government wants Apple to basically turn off the wipe after 10 failed tries feature or set it to unlimited somehow so they can crack the code using a brute-force method.

Is My iPhone Government-hackable?

The question of whether your phone is hackable by anyone (government or otherwise), depends on your security settings. Obviously, the combination of the two features above appear to be giving the FBI difficulty, so it's reasonable to assume that if you had them enabled on your phone, they would have a similar ​effect if someone tried to hack it.

If Apple agrees to create a backdoor in the future then all bets are off as to whether any of our phones are safe from that point forward.

To learn more about the iPhone's data wiping security feature check out our article: This iPhone Will Self-destruct.

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