ElcomSoft Breaks iPhone Encryption, Offers Forensic Access to File System Dumps

May 23rd, 2011 by Vladimir Katalov
Category: «Elcomsoft News», «General», «Mobile», «Software»

ElcomSoft researchers were able to decrypt iPhone’s encrypted file system images made under iOS 4. While at first this may sound as a minor achievement, ElcomSoft is in fact the world’s first company to do this. It’s also worth noting that we will be releasing the product implementing this functionality for the exclusive use of law enforcement, forensic and intelligence agencies. We have a number of good reasons for doing it this way. But first, let’s have a look at perspective.

iPhone User Data: What’s Inside

Let’s make it very clear: no privacy purist should ever use an iPhone (or any other smartphone, probably). iPhone devices store or cache humungous amounts of information about how, when, and where the device has been used. The amount of sensitive information collected and stored in Apple smartphones is beyond what had previously been imaginable. Pictures, emails and text messages included deleted ones, calls placed and received are just a few things to mention. A comprehensive history of user’s locations complete with geographic coordinates and timestamps. Google maps and routes ever accessed. Web browsing history and browser cache, screen shots of applications being used, usernames, Web site passwords and the password to iPhone backups made with iTunes software, and just about everything typed on the iPhone is being cached by the device.

It’s Not About iPhone Backups Any More

Some, but not all, of that information makes its way into iPhone backups produced with Apple iTunes. Protected iPhone backups can be broken into with Elcomsoft Phone Password Breaker; once decrypted, information stored in these backups can be viewed by many commercial products. However, the amount of information that these backups contain is reasonably limited. Analyzing actual iPhone device could provide forensic access to much more data.

Adequate Protection

The amount and nature of information accumulated by iPhone devices called for adequate protection. Starting with iPhone 3GS, Apple was including a hardware encryption chip in all subsequent devices. With iOS 4, the company introduced a feature called Data Protection that enabled hardware-based encryption of all user data stored in iPhone 3GS and subsequent models (iPhone 4, all models of iPad, and latest generations of iPod Touch). Using industry-standard AES-256 encryption, the protection was considered to be adequate against even the best equipped adversaries, including forensic analysts and law enforcement agencies.

Implementation of iPhone File System Encryption

If you’re not interested in technical detail on how Apple iOS 4 protects user data in iPhone devices, you can skip this chapter. Reading it will, however, help you understand and appreciate what was done by ElcomSoft researchers. iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad (referred hereafter as iOS devices) are quite popular with all types of users. Due to their popularity and considering the amount of information about the history of user’s behavior, iOS devices are common subjects to forensic analysis. The most comprehensive technique for iOS forensics is physical acquisition that allows to obtain a bit-to-bit snapshot of iOS devices’ file system. In a way, this is similar to making an image of a disk or dumping a CD or DVD into an ISO file.

The technique worked great until the release of iOS 4. Before that, file system images obtained from iPhone and other iOS devices were perfectly readable with all user data being readily accessible. On iOS 4.x, however, those file system images obtained from the devices were pretty much useless for forensic analysis because the contents of each file were securely encrypted. File system seemed to be intact, though, and it was still possible to get list of files and some of their attributes.

To make things even more complicated for a security researcher, every file is encrypted with its own unique encryption key tied to particular iOS device. Furthermore, certain files are protected with encryption keys tied to both the device and the user’s passcode, meaning that those files can be only decrypted when the device is unlocked by the user. Most notable examples are e-mail files maintained by built-in Mail app.

Breaking the Encryption

Explaining what we did to break this encryption is not exactly easy. In a word, we found a way to decrypt bit-to-bit images of iOS 4 devices. Decrypted images are perfectly usable, and can be analyzed with forensic tools such as Guidance EnCase or AccessData FTK (or any other tool which supports raw drive images and HFS+ file system). Decryption is not possible without having access to the actual device because we need to obtain the encryption keys that are stored in (or computed by) the device and are not dumped or stored during typical physical acquisition. In particular, those keys include:

  • Keys computed from the unique device key (UID), which is believed to be embedded in the hardware and is not extractable (so-called keys 0x835 and 0x89B);
  • User passcode key which is derived from users’ passcode using the unique device key (UID);
  • Escrow key(s) which are derived from escrow pairing records using the unique device key (UID);
  • Effaceable storage area which stores number of encryption keys.

Once we've got those keys, we're good to go. File decryption is instant and is only subject to the availability of corresponding content protection key. Some files can be encrypted with keys tied to user’s passcode and to decrypt those you will need the correct passcode or the escrow keys (see below). ElcomSoft provides a tool to brute-force the passcode. The vast majority of files, however, can be decrypted without knowing the passcode.

By default (with “Simple passcode” option enabled), passcodes consists of only four digits, meaning that only 10,000 possibilities exist. Having to enter their passcode pretty often most users keep their passcodes to the default length of only four digits for the sake of usability.

Ten thousand combinations do not sound like much. On a PC, breaking a passcode of this length would only take a few moments. Unfortunately, passcodes can only be bruteforced on the device itself. With iPhone 4, the maximum time of breaking a 4-digit passcode is therefore about 40 minutes, while taking about 20 minutes on average. iPhone 3GS is slower, and it takes a bit longer to break a passcode there. In fact, phones running iPhoneOS 3.x can be broken without knowing the passcode by simply removing it; with iOS 4.x, a valid passcode is required to gain full access.

It is possible to overcome the requirement of having the correct passcode by using escrow keys. Escrow keys are created and stored by the iTunes when you first plug an iOS device to the computer. Having a set of escrow keys collected from a computer to which an iOS device was once connected gives the same powers as knowing the passcode (except that you can’t deduce the passcode itself).

The last thing standing is the keychain. The keychain is a system-wide storage area for application secrets such as user account details, usernames and passwords. While Elcomsoft Phone Password Breaker already has the ability to display the contents of the keychain area, it could only read the keychain from iOS backups. As it turns out, not all data from the system keychain is exported into the backup. For example, the backup password itself is present in the system keychain but is never exported to the backup. Application developers utilizing Keychain can choose whether records stored by their application should go to the backup or not. That said, the complete Keychain including items not included wit the backup can be read and decrypted using the same set of keys obtained from the device.

Another World’s First

So far, ElcomSoft is the first company to offer a complete, all-in-one commercial solution for performing physical acquisition analysis of iOS 4.x devices. ElcomSoft did another “World’s first” here.

What This Means for You

By breaking the protection system of Apple iPhone 3GS and later devices running iOS 4, ElcomSoft opens the possibility of an extremely comprehensive forensic analysis of affected iOS devices. While this is a big achievement in cryptographic terms, iPhone backups produced with Apple iTunes software already contained a lot of sensitive information, including keychains. ElcomSoft makes forensic analysis easier, faster (the extraction of file system encryption keys is nearly instant as opposed to lengthy dictionary or brute force attacks which are required to obtain a password to an iPhone backup) and more comprehensive.

The toolkit we're offering includes updated Elcomsoft Phone Password Breaker which was fitted with new function to decrypt iOS 4.x file system images, as well as an optional tools to obtain filesystem images of the iOS 4.x devices, extract keys required for image decryption, and brute-force passcode.

To make sure those tools do not fall into the wrong hands, we decided to offer them only to established law enforcement, forensic and intelligence agencies as well as select government organizations.

Affected Apple Devices

All Apple devices starting with iPhone 3GS and running iOS 4 are affected, including iPhone, iPod and iPad devices.


Next part: Extracting the File System from iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch Devices


Elcomsoft Phone Breaker

Gain full access to information stored in FileVault 2 containers, iOS, Apple iCloud, Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10 devices! Download device backups from Apple iCloud, Microsoft OneDrive and BlackBerry 10 servers. Use Apple ID and password or extract binary authentication tokens from computers, hard drives and forensic disk images to download iCloud data without a password. Decrypt iOS backups with GPU-accelerated password recovery.

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