Can the Government Hack Your iPhone?

The Answer Depends on Your Security Settings

Secure smart phone. A key next to smartphone with a lock over a cloud on its screen.
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You've probably heard about the U.S. government wanting a backdoor into an accused terrorist's iPhone so agents could obtain evidence of a crime that had been committed or discover new information that could thwart future attacks. The problem the agents encountered was that the iPhone's security protection mechanism was too strong to break without destroying the data on the phone.

On the one hand, personal privacy is a fundamental right. On the other, the agents have a legal right to search the phone, if they could access it. No matter where your opinion falls on this subject, you have to appreciate the fact that Apple has so well protected its iPhones that the matter ever came up at all.

The iPhone ships with several security features that protect your information from thieves or anyone else who has your phone and wants to see what is on it. If you enable them, no one will be able to hack your iPhone.

Passcode Protection

Once you enable a passcode, your device is encrypted. Beginning with iPhone 3GS, all iPhones offer hardware encryption. A passcode protects the encryption keys and blocks access to the phone's data, providing an additional layer of protection for your email messages and apps.

Although you can choose to use a simple 4-digit passcode, taking advantage of the complex passcode option makes the iPhone 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.

Self-Destruct Feature

The iPhone can be set to wipe all data after 10 failed passcode attempts in the Passcode settings. The feature is a thorn in the side of anyone who is trying to gain access to the data in the phone. It prevents brute-force passcode cracking attempts because after the 10th try, the data is wiped.

Without this feature, any knowledgeable hacker can crack the passcode 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. The combination of the passcode and self-destruct features should keep anyone from hacking your phone. They only work if you enable them, though. 

Other Security Features

Apple gives iPhone users a way to remote erase the phone. The addition of an Activation Lock to the Find My iPhone app in recent iPhone versions makes it possible for the iPhone owner to use the Find My iPhone app to remotely erase their device. 

This wouldn't be helpful if the government is after the data because the action could be considered the destruction of evidence, but if the person who has your iPhone is a thief, he won't be able to erase it for resale, and you can direct the police to his location.

Another relatively new feature—Lost Mode—prevents the use of your credit cards on a missing iPhone and suspends alerts and notifications on the Home screen of the device. This security feature is also more useful when dealing with thieves than dealing with U.S. agents. Enable it from iCloud.com if you ever lose your phone to prevent thieves from running up balances on your credit cards.

There are also some really cool iPhone apps that help keep your device and the information within it safer.