iOS 11.4: Apple Throws Another Punch at Law Enforcement Agencies
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iOS 11.4: Apple Throws Another Punch at Law Enforcement Agencies

The ‘USB Restricted Mode’ feature will make it even harder for agencies to hack into iPhones

The never-ending tale of Apple vs. Law Enforcement has just taken another twist. Apple, with its much anticipated (thanks to the iOS 11.3 bugs) iOS 11.4 update, is going to introduce a new feature that should give a collective headache to law enforcement agencies and companies such as Grayshift, the creators of GrayKey—an iPhone unlocking box.

This feature is called ‘USB Restricted Mode.’

USB Restricted Mode, as the name suggests, restricts the access of the iPhone via lightning connector. The way it works is simple yet highly effective in nature. Once an iPhone or an iPad has been updated to 11.4, the USB Restricted Mode disables USB data connection if the device hasn’t been unlocked for a week. The phone will be charged via the lightning connector but won’t be able to establish a USB connection.

“To improve security, for a locked iOS device to communicate with USB accessories you must connect an accessory via the lightning connector to the device while unlocked – or enter your device passcode while connected – at least once a week,” wrote Oleg Afonin of ElcomSoft, a password, and system recovery software provider.

Does USB Restricted Mode really matter?

Hell Yeah!

Let me explain it to you.

Unless you were born yesterday, you’d have heard of the infamous spat(s) between Apple and the FBI. Apple, as a part of its Zero-Knowledge Encryption, doesn’t allow any access to anyone who wants to crack the password and unlock the device. In fact, even Apple cannot break it if it wishes to. But the fortunate or unfortunate (whichever side you’re on) truth about today’s virtual world is that someone will come up with a way no matter how strong the security is.

That’s what Grayshift did with its GrayKey device. This device tries brute-force attacks via USB connection to unlock the device. In simple words, GrayKey tries all sorts of different permutations and combinations to crack the password; it’s an intricate yet super-fast guessing game.

The online version of GrayKey is available for $15,000, and the offline one costs $30,000. Note that not everyone can get GrayKey as only the “right” people and organizations with “legitimate purpose” can get access to it. But I certainly won’t deny the possibility of GrayKey eventually ending up on eBay.

When the news of such a device first came to the surface, it appeared that the likes of the FBI would no longer have to work through a court (they didn’t need to do it anyway) or run to Israeli firms to crack an iPhone – or try to use a dead man’s finger – a palm-sized box is all they’d need.

However, Apple seems to have other ideas.

The USB Restricted Mode won’t let devices connect if the phone hasn’t been unlocked in seven days. So, the device has a limited timeframe to weave its magic. iPhone or iPad will go in the no-response state if a week passes without getting unlocked.

It still might not matter

Don’t get your hopes too up as this feature is still being tested in the beta version of iOS 11.4. It was also a part of the iOS 11.3 beta but was later removed in the stable 11.3 release. So, that possibility is always there. Even if USB Restricted Mode isn’t a part of the software update, iPhone users will welcome 11.4 with open arms as the 11.3 bugs have left many of them frustrated.

iOS 11.4 can’t come soon enough!

  • I always knew this FBI suit was total BS. Why? Because I could have unlocked that phone for them and I’m a kid with no resources. They are the FBI… lol

    They waited for a terrible event like this mass shooting to take this suit public against Apple, hoping to gain public support to “unlock that phone” after the shooting. What a terrible thing for the FBI to do; use the deaths of innocent people to further their political aspirations to spy on everyone (this goes back to J. Edgar Hoover days.)

    I’d be willing to bet the FBI has had that phone unlocked within the first 48 hours of investigation after the shooting. This is all political BS to further remove american citizen’s right to privacy. Soon America will be just like Russia… and Kim Jong-Un will join the new world order! Lol jk jk I overdramatize this for satirical purposes. But seriously don’t let your government take away your rights.

    As for Apple’s new USB lockout… I find it interesting. I have an android phone that I have full root kernel and bootloader access to… I disabled my USB data transfer about a year ago to guard against malicious USB chargers (yes that’s a thing.) So about time Apple caught up! 🙂

    I see a potential flaw though… the lockout is based on time (7 day period.) This seems to me like a potential work around would be restarting the phone whilst hijacking it’s cellular data connection (MiTM attack) and modifying the NTP (time server) packets so that the phone thinks it’s (say) Jan 1st 1970. This is WAY before any one week lockout 🙂

    Apple has already had one major NTP vulnerability where walking by a malicious access point (that told the phone it was 1/1/70) would cause the phone to f*** up and eventually overheat and die. Forgot the name of this vulnerability, but I replicated it on an iOS device of my own about two years ago… it worked (but I pulled the battery and reset it so it was fine.)

    Oh here’s another work around for the FBI: it’s called a JTAG… look it up on Wikipedia my FBI friends 🙂

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Jay Thakkar

After graduating from university with an engineering degree, Jay found his true passion as a writer…specifically, a cybersecurity writer. He’s now a Hashed Out staff writer covering encryption, privacy, cybersecurity best practices, and related topics.