In recent months, a law enforcement tool called GrayKey has become publicly known as the gold standard for law enforcement agencies trying to break into encrypted iPhones. Provided that the cops have physical access to a device, the $15,000 tool enables authorities to get their way inside, given a week or so of passcode guessing attempts. The tool works on iPhones running the most recent public version of Apple’s software, and has temporarily stopped law enforcement from complaining about strong encryption on mobile devices.
But according to Reuters, Apple has confirmed that it’s going to push through a rumored change to iOS that will make GrayKey virtually worthless. The change, which is live in the iOS 12 public beta and will reportedly be included in a “forthcoming general release,” limits access to the Lightning port when a device is locked. Although cops will still have a narrow window to break into devices, the changes will limit the scope of its usefulness, and is likely to reignite the “going dark” debate.
GrayKey is a simple-to-use box that cops plug into a locked iPhone through the Lightning port and brute-force guesses the passcode without needing codes to be manually entered. In the latest version of iOS 12, the Lightning port becomes worthless after the iPhone has been locked for just one hour, which dramatically shortens the window of time that cops have to unlock devices. It’s called USB Restricted Mode, and it prevents all data communications between an iPhone and a newly connected “accessory” — which is how the GrayKey shows up — after the iPhone has been locked for at least one hour.
“We’re constantly strengthening the security protections in every Apple product to help customers defend against hackers, identity thieves and intrusions into their personal data,” Apple told Reuters. “We have the greatest respect for law enforcement, and we don’t design our security improvements to frustrate their efforts to do their jobs.”
Earlier versions of the USB restrictions had a time limit of one week rather than one hour, according to Motherboard, and the new limit could make life significantly harder for police departments. If they want to unlock suspect devices, they’ll need to plug them into a GrayKey within an hour of seizing them, which could mean deploying the GrayKey devices far more proactively with first responders, rather than keeping them in a lab. Given that the devices cost between $15,000 and $30,000, that could work out much more costly for law enforcement.
Of course, this isn’t likely to be the end for iPhone hacking. Every time Apple has instituted new security procedures, new workarounds have been found almost as fast. But cutting off access to the iPhone’s one data port means that hackers are more likely to need complex and tricky procedures that involve opening up the phone and attaching directly to internal components, which is a far reach from the plug-and-play ease that GrayKey offered.